A monumental mistake

On July 7, the University of Mississippi—Ole Miss—announced it would re-name the James K. Vardaman Building, which houses among other things the university’s Violence Prevention Office.

That was a nice touch. When former Democrat Governor James Vardaman died in 1930, his legacy was not exactly violence prevention. In 1907, as sitting governor he declared, “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”

Ole Miss’s decision to demote Vardaman comes at a time when many colleges and universities and some city governments are embroiled in controversies over whether to remove statues or otherwise de-commemorate historical figures whose legacies now seem less than wholesome.  Vardaman, who is among the most vicious racists ever to hold public office in the United States, is an unrivaled example.

Extolling Mississippi’s poll tax, Vardaman spoke with his usual candor: “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter… Mississippi's constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics.”  

The memory of Vardaman belongs in the textbooks, not over the portals of university buildings. But what about figures such as Woodrow Wilson? In November 2015, students organized as the Black Justice league at Princeton University occupied President Eisgruber’s office to demand the removal of Wilson’s name “from all buildings.”  

Wilson, who served as Princeton’s president prior to being elected the governor of New Jersey and president of the United States, was definitely no friend to American blacks. After receiving a letter from NAACP founder Oswald Garrison Villard deploring his administration’s decision to segregate black federal workers behind screens, Wilson insisted that segregation “reduced tensions between the races.” And Wilson’s affinity for eugenics is no secret: as Governor of New Jersey he signed a bill permitting the sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill.  

Princeton took the demand to scrub Wilson’s name seriously. Princeton’s board of trustees convened a committee to study the proposal. In April 2016, the board accepted the committee’s recommendation to keep Wilson’s name, but also created a new program to foster “diversity and inclusion.”  

When it comes to de-commemoration, lines must be drawn. Vardaman is known for nothing other than oppression of blacks. Wilson has a more complex legacy. Wilson’s advocacy for international institutions based on human rights and the rule of law eventually undergirded a US-dominated world order. Princeton rightly took this into account.

However, it isn’t always easy to draw a line between “flawed men” like Wilson who might still be worthy of recognition and figures like Vardaman who deserve nothing but opprobrium.

Consider Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College. Although John C. Calhoun was an ardent defender of slavery, he was an accomplished public servant and reformer.

When President James Monroe tapped Calhoun to head the War Department, he advocated for the development of a professionally trained army in place of the smaller, local militias that barely scraped by British forces during the War of 1812. Though congressional Jeffersonians fought his efforts tooth-and-nail, public opinion would eventually reflect Calhoun’s view.

Calhoun also favored the development of roads and later a national railway system that would have protected domestic trade from foreign interference with coastal shipping.

Did having a college at Yale named after an alumnus who became vice president and a leading figure in antebellum politics stain the university? Perhaps some stains are better left intact. Calhoun was a man of his time and place, but he was also a statesman who spoke, at least some of the time, to noble aspirations. Statesmanship is totally absent in a figure like Vardaman. That seems one distinction worth maintaining.  

There is, ironically, another line of defense for preserving Calhoun’s name. The idea for which he is best known—nullification—lives on among today’s progressives. You would think they would want to give credit where credit is due.

Governor Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) had no problem applying Calhoun’s nullification logic to support his decision to defy federal immigration laws. And progressive activists tapped into their inner-Calhoun when they encouraged the Golden State’s secession after Donald Trump’s upset election victory last year.

Progressives also displayed their latent attraction to Antebellum views on race in 1969 when Wesleyan university agreed to provide segregated housing for blacks, saying the decision would quell racial tensions on campus. Just two years ago, Brown University released a “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan” detailing the school’s effort to promote “culturally conscious mental health,” a euphemism for hiring black psychologists exclusively for black students.

Woodrow Wilson, the ur-progressive, would surely have approved. Brown University has restored his concept of screening off the blacks.

The urgency among universities to whitewash history by eliminating conspicuous apologists for slavery collides with their competing urgency to validate neo-racist policies.

When Trinity College reinstated Prof. Johnny Eric Williams after the widely reported #letthemfuckingdie incident, the AAUP celebrated his exoneration. And the Chronicle of Higher Education rushed to defend Tommy Curry’s advocacy for racial violence against whites on the grounds that his views were why Texas A&M hired him.

It’s possible that what we’re witnessing on university campuses is simply the triumph of one identity politics over another. It isn’t hard to see the “intersection” between Lost Causers and modern day multiculturalists. “Woke” blacks justify campus segregation by saying it’s a defense against an all-powerful white regime. Slavery apologists continue to argue that Northern aggressions provoked the first shots at Fort Sumter.

Each side seeks recognition of its illiberal views. Neither understands the truth in the idea that all men are created equal.

Tearing down the statues of yesterday’s heroes, renaming buildings and streets, putting someone else’s mug on the nickel or the $20 bill—it’s an old game. Egyptian pharaohs played their own version of it, so it’s best not to get too excited. At least not until the keepers of our cultural legacies decide to replace Tupac Shakur with Eminem. That’s where I draw the line.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @dpierr8