Opinion: Georgia regents honor racists rather than rout racism

Regents appointed committee to recommend name changes and then ignored them

Can college campuses repudiate racism while forcing students to live and attend classes in buildings that commemorate people who owned slaves and opposed integration?

The Georgia Board of Regents believes so.

Eighteen months ago, the University System of Georgia created a blue ribbon Naming Advisory Group to review building names of its 26 colleges and universities. The five-member group released a 181-page report in which it recommended changing the names of 75 buildings and colleges named after 58 Georgia historical figures who oppressed workers, owned slaves or endorsed segregation. (Some names appear on multiple buildings.)

So how many names are changing? None.

The regents will not move forward with any of the advisory group’s recommendations, issuing a flaccid statement: “The purpose of history is to instruct. History can teach us important lessons, lessons that if understood and applied make Georgia and its people stronger.”

Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the references to instruction and lessons are disingenuous. If the regents were sincere, she said, they would have detailed plans to at least add historical context to instruct students that the buildings were named for Georgians who kept Black people in chains and denied them access to education.

“It shows the state of Georgia continues to honor and venerate enslavers and segregationists, and some of the most blatant ones at that,” said Brooks. “People argue that it was a different time, as if that were an excuse for it. But we are in present time, and it is our responsibility to correct the record. You cannot move forward without correcting the record. It’s important that students of color, particularly African-American students, feel safe, included, respected and honored at the university they attend.”

The Board of Regents is comprised of political appointees, and their loyalty often aligns with the governor rather than to the colleges and universities it oversees. The regents eschewed a mask mandate on campuses — one of the only university systems in the country to do so — during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in deference to Gov. Brian Kemp’s political stance.

Many of the recommended name changes focus on University of Georgia, including Aderhold Hall, Lipscomb Hall and the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. President of UGA in the 1950s, Omer Clyde “O.C.” Aderhold resisted integration, appointing known segregationists to review and reject highly qualified law school applicant Horace Ward, who instead enrolled at Northwestern in Illinois and became the first African American in Georgia to serve on the federal bench. Ward played a role in the 1961 court challenge that finally opened UGA to Black students. Aderhold Hall houses UGA’s education school.

“It is not good for students, faculty and staff to live their lives in buildings named for people responsible for violent white supremacy,” said Kathy Roberts Forde, an American journalism historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of an upcoming book, “Journalism & Jim Crow: The Making of White Supremacy in the New South.”

“The Southern landscape tells a history that valorizes this anti-democratic, anti-black past. These are buildings named for people who were committed to the ideology, practices and systems of white supremacy,” said Forde. “In many instances, these systems used tools of racial terror to enforce white supremacy, lynching, convict leasing and mob violence. "

Forde also assailed the regents for essentially shrugging off the long labors of the advisory committee. “This was not a small amount of work,” she said. “They did it in good faith. The whole situation is appalling.”

Marion Ross Fedrick, chair of the naming group and president of Albany State University, did not want to weigh in on the regents’ decision. She said she remained hopeful about the direction of the University System, citing the recent announcement that UGA would name two new buildings after trailblazing Black graduates. “That is huge progress,” said Fedrick. ”I really want to focus on what is next.”

As a member of the naming group, retired Court of Appeals of Georgia Chief Judge Herbert E. Phipps said he understood their role was advisory, but expected some action by the regents. “Otherwise, why ask us to do the work?”

Phipps noted this year marks the 60th anniversary of the court-ordered desegregation of Georgia’s campuses. “I thought 60 years later we would have reached a point where it would not be difficult at all to remove the names of slave masters, Confederate generals and others who dedicated their lives to maintaining Black people in a second-class status in this country even throughout most of the 20th century,” he said.

“Every day Black students are going to work and class in buildings named for these people, and I think about how that must make them feel,” said Phipps. “And I am amazed that we cannot change those names at this time in our history.”