The students at N.C. Central University are to be applauded for demanding a change that, arguably, might have been more appropriately initiated by the chancellor and his administration, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and alumni.
The campaign calls for an official name change of the Hoey Administration Building at the entrance of the campus, framing the statute of founder James E. Shepard. It was the college’s first brick building, constructed in 1929, and was later named after Gov. Clyde R. Hoey, a white supremacist, in 1939, who served from 1937-41. This was the period during which NCCU established its first graduate and professional programs, including its law school – all created specifically to forestall the integration of those programs at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In 1937, Hoey appointed a commission to study black education. No blacks were among its five members. Moreover, his commission angered black leaders when it recommended, at Hoey’s behest, that a governor-appointed committee of representatives from white universities oversee future developments in black higher education. Even Shepard, known for his deference to influential white politicians, questioned “the wisdom of establishing a commission on which representatives of white institutions would have control of the work of any institution for Negroes in the state.”
Sarah H. Theusen noted in her book, “Greater than Equal,” that the following year, 1938, when Pauli Murray, an African American female, was denied admission to the graduate school of sociology at UNC-CH based solely on her race, Hoey gave the following remarks to the North Carolina General Assembly: “North Carolina does not believe in social equality of the races,” he declared, “and will not tolerate mixed schools for the races.” Later, when Hoey became a U.S. senator in the 1940s, he vigorously opposed President Harry Truman’s civil rights legislation. At that time, Louis Alston, publisher of the Carolina Times, an African-American newspaper in Durham, called Hoey’s speech “a long asinine diatribe against Negroes,” and in 1945 Austin called for a ban on the poll tax, while Hoey opposed a change in that law,which effectively disfranchised most blacks.He also filibustered against legislation for Truman’s Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1950.
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His contradictory history and views on race reflect a past that is incompatible with NCCU’s values of racial justice, respect for others, and commitmentto 21st century diversity. The university’s most iconic building and branding image deserve a name change,as much as NCCU did in 1947when it no longer desired to be called North Carolina College for Negroes. Names matter, a university speaks through the names on its buildings which communicates its values and expresses gratitude to those who have contributed to its goals and mission, while uplifting the integrity of those it serves. At an HBCU, no building should be named for those who facilitated and benefited from slavery, segregation,or racialprejudice.
This effort to correct an injustice is a student movement much like the sit-ins of the ’60s, and it finds itself on the right side of history. All across the nation, students are revisiting the origins of their schools and buildings, ranging from profits made from slavery, to buildings named for virulent white racists, for former Ku Klux Klan executives, and for those whose lives and rhetoric do not represent the American ideal.
Higher education institutions, including Georgetown, Yale, Alabama, Clemson, Mississippi, the University of South Carolina, and closer to home, East Carolina University, and UNC-CH are also facing these retrospective naming challenges. But there are deeper meanings at NCCU and other HBCUs, where the majority of the students, faculty, administrators and alumni are African American, and whose ancestors were demeaned and purposely marginalized by historical figures who were unambiguously racist, and whose names have been honored on the institutions’ buildings for generations.
No doubt, Shepard likely made the best out of a political conundrum. It was both the age of segregation and the era of the Great Depression. Had he angered white legislators, whom he had already persuaded to support the “first” state HBCU liberal arts college – no trades or industrial arts curriculum – the doors of NCCU would have been closed.
When Hoey was governor, NCCU had been a state-sponsored school for only 12 years.Shepard did not want his school to become a state school, but there was no other way he could keep it open in the early 1920s: the state had a shortage of black teachers,and NCCU was able to train them.That was the beginning of the tradeoffs, and Shepard thought it wise to show his gratitude with such expressions as naming a building after one of his benefactors who demanded segregation in exchange. In addition, the white members of the governing body of the school at that time were all segregationists. Shepard exploited segregation, as best he knew how, for the survival and expansion of his school, and sometimes the price he paid was costly, though his options were limited.
It is unwise to judge him outside the context of his time, though this generation should not be held hostage to decisions Shepard made under the most difficult of circumstances. Naming a building in honor of a racist is one of them, and today it is anachronistic, especially for a HBCU.
Times have changed and the obsequiousness that Shepard had to demonstrate to white segregationists for the survival of NCCU is no longer necessary. The Hoey building is more a symbol of what Shepard had to endure than it is of what he accomplished.It is time for a name change. In fact, the change islong overdue.
Al-Tony Gilmore is a historian and archivist emeritus of the National Education Association and recently worked as visiting scholar at The George Washington University. Walter C. Farrell Jr. has been a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and atthe University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has also taught at several HBCUs, including NCCU. Both are also NCCU graduates.