Thousands sign petitions to remove Jenkins, Byrd from campus building names

Two petitions urging Marshall University administrators to rename buildings on campus currently named after a former Confederate general and a former leader in the Ku Klux Klan have garnered thousands of signatures within a week of being circulated.

One petition calls on university officials to rename Jenkins Hall—named after Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins—in honor of a black civil rights activist such as Ruby Bridges, Dorothy Height or Bernice Robinson. The other states that university buildings named after former prominent KKK leader and politician Robert C. Byrd ought to be renamed to honor a prominent black scientist and researcher from West Virginia such as Margaret Collins or Katherine Johnson.

The Jenkins Hall petition notes the irony of naming a College of Education and Professional Development building to honor a man who vehemently opposed the education of black people and other minorities.

The petition states: “It is very ironic and disingenuous that a building intended to prepare the future educators of this state is named after someone who stood against the education and advancement of people of color, especially African Americans. Part of Marshall University’s mission states that it seeks to ‘Create opportunities and experiences to foster understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity of thought and culture.’ How can this mission be accomplished when we continue to commemorate those who so adamantly stood against fostering the understanding of rich diversity of thought and culture?”

The Robert C. Byrd petition also argues there is irony in Marshall’s status as an “Open to All” university while naming buildings after a former leader of the local KKK. The petition states that while Byrd had provided financial support to the state of West Virginia and claimed in his later years that he no longer was racist, his prominent role in the local KKK should disqualify him from being honored on a college campus. It states that a major university honoring someone such as Byrd contributes to the popular stereotype that people in West Virginia are uneducated and bigoted toward minorities.

The petition states: “Marshall University is proudly an Open to All campus but continues to have Robert C. Byrd’s name plastered on multiple buildings where students of all races attend in hopes of a higher education (…) I do not believe that is who we are as a community, campus, or state and I want the physical environment to be a reflection of that. I hope you will join me in this time of social justice to change our campus to reflect the belief of equality and fair representation.”

University buildings currently named after Byrd include the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Rural Health, both constructed using federal funding which Byrd, as a U.S. senator, helped to secure.

This is not the first occasion of Marshall students and community members calling on university officials to rename buildings currently honoring men with documented histories of being racist and fighting for racist causes.

During the fall 2018 semester, students from the university’s Students for a Democratic Society initiated a movement to rename Jenkins Hall which ultimately resulted in the construction of a plaque inside the building condemning slavery, but the name remained unchanged.

The university Board of Governors entered an hours-long executive session—closed to the public—to make the decision not to rename the building.

As reported by the Herald-Dispatch, a statement later released by the board explained that the most significant impact upon the decision not to rename the building was “indication by ‘major donors’ to the university that support would cease if the building’s name were changed.”

A prominent voice in the movement to rename Jenkins Hall during the fall 2018 semester was David Trowbridge, history professor and director of African and African American studies at the university.

During a November 2018 public information session about renaming the building, Trowbridge said: “Jenkins and his men made the abduction of people of color a primary aim of his 1863 raid. African Americans fled the area when they heard Jenkins was coming due to the violent reputation he had built (…) Memorializing men like Jenkins can only be possible by the erasure of select parts of their history. Thanks to the students and administration of this institution, that history is being recovered. Will we choose erasure or will we face the past?”

In a recent Twitter thread in response to the reignited movement to rename Jenkins Hall, Trowbridge stated that, during the previous efforts to rename the building, he provided university officials several primary sources proving that Jenkins captured and enslaved women and children throughout the Civil War.

Part of the thread states: “I drove on my own time and dime to (Pennsylvania) to conduct research for two days. (Marshall) administration was not interested in the actions Jenkins took against people of color. The (Board of Governors) statement contains this phrase: ‘There is some evidence that (Jenkins) even captured former slaves who had been freed by their owners to return them to slavery but we have been unable to document that fact.’ This is despite over a dozen sources I provided. And I was not alone. Many students, librarians, and faculty worked to provide historical context. The public portal Marshall provided falsely claimed that these records were not available.”

During the fall 2018 public information session, Trowbridge said: “Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we get it wrong, and we name buildings after the wrong people (…) Historians who have looked to see the backstory behind the decision to name the building after Jenkins have found no instance of people knowing his history, and I would argue this name would not have happened without the erasure of that history. I don’t see the nuance here.”

The Jenkins Hall petition can be accessed at this link. The Robert C. Byrd petition can be accessed at this link.

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].