Hats off to my colleague Hilary Green for her participation this evening on a panel addressing the legacy of names tied to University of Alabama buildings. This student-led event presented a range of approaches to how the university community might reflect on and make active decisions about the names of some buildings, especially ones tied to individuals who owned enslaved people or supported initiatives that hurt the attempts of people of African descent to achieve the promises of the American dream.
Among the buildings whose histories were discussed was Nott Hall, named for Josiah Nott, the late physician. The university’s Honors College, UA’s Rural Health Program, and Microbiology labs are housed in the building named for Nott who is mentioned in Green’s recently published book Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press). Nott reportedly led an opposition to the education of newly freed people of African descent in Mobile, AL.
Admirably, honor students organized the event inviting attention to the care that is needed in discussions concerning the possible erasure of certain histories, public perception and politics, and the work of institutional memory.
My colleague John Giggie, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South, was the moderator of the panel that also included Alfred Brophy, the Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and former UA professor and Thomas Herwig, a German-born minister and Assistant Professor in the Honors College.
The Southern Poverty Law Center On Campus and the Blackburn Institute were co-sponsors of the event, which was was titled “Why Nott: A Scholarly Discussion of Building Names.”
Among my other colleagues in attendance were Erik Petersen and John Beeler of the History Department.
What I appreciated most was hearing the openness to hear opposing sides to this difficult conversation. I was encouraged by seeing students’ nodding their heads as Herwig asked for open communication.
As I mentioned during the Q & A section, the entire conversation took me back to my time at the University of Chicago early this century when the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) was moving into a new building that had no name. For a while, it was called 5710 after its address (5710 Woodlawn). I was a graduate student working for OMSA. I wondered what it would take to have the building named for my late great grandmother and asked the then-director of OMSA who said “millions.”
This was a pretty political idea. My great grandmother had been a mere barmaid in the Mississippi Delta during the Jim Crow period, and later, the manager of the Sugar Shack, a boarding house on Grand Avenue in Miami’s Coconut Grove community in the 1960s and 1970s. How could she be a fitting person to honor on a building that is now called the Center for Identity + Inclusion?
I now saw “why not?” As a recent article in UA’s school newspaper reveals, my family’s history inspires my work and my life. As I have written elsewhere, she was a pretty political woman in her own way. I can recall the fraying edges of her poster of John and Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King. It was always taped to the wall of her efficiency apartment, which was on the top floor of the boarding house.
I remember, too, how she used to hold my hand and take me on a bus to the Woolworth’s in downtown Miami. We sat anywhere we wanted on the bus and shared a cheeseburger at the lunch counter. I was little more than four or five years old. I had no idea that riding that bus and sitting at that lunch counter was a big deal for my great grandmother. Going forward, I will remember such acts of courage amid ongoing conversations about our university’s history and the people associated with it, among them the students who led tonight’s talk.