Texas exists so I don’t have to make up headlines like the one above. Khou.com reports:
Simkins Residence Hall is the last all-male dormitory at the University of Texas. Tucked into a quiet corner of campus along Waller Creek, it was the first men’s dorm with air conditioning.
It is notable for another reason as well: Simkins is named for a UT law professor who was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, no average Klan sympathizer can get his name on a dorm in Texas. You’ve got to be a Klan leader for that kind of recognition.
Administration officials claim they only recently became aware of the Simkins’s supremacist background. That’s probably true. But something tells me that 55 years ago, when the dorm opened, somebody at UT damn well knew that this law prof was a Klansman…
To be clear, Simkins’s — let’s call them “sympathies” — were very evident while he was alive:
Simkins, who was a Confederate colonel during the war, said in a Thanksgiving Day speech on campus in 1914 and in an article two years later in the Alcalde, the alumni magazine, that he never drew blood as a Klansman. He admitted assaulting a black man, participating in a train robbery and sowing fear in Florida’s “black belt” as a masked night rider.
“The immediate effect upon the Negro was wonderful, the flitting to and fro of masked horses and faces struck terror to the race,” Simkins wrote.
When a white woman in Florida complained of being insulted by a black man, Simkins wrote, “I seized a barrel stave lying near the hotel door and whipped that darkey down the street.”
I’m telling you, somebody at Texas knew exactly whose name they were putting on a dorm in 1955. A research paper by Tom Russell, a former UT law professor, re-introduced Simkins to the UT community. Russell suggests that there were some people on the UT faculty that knew what they were doing:
Russell said university records show that the faculty named the Simkins dorm, which initially housed law and graduate students, five weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown case.
Page Keeton, dean of the law school, suggested the name earlier that year, and a faculty naming committee omitted mention of Simkins’ Klan involvement when it brought the matter before the full body of faculty representatives, according to Russell’s article.
It’s easy to forget that we are barely one generation removed from this kind of crap. Because of that, I’m inclined to give Page Keeton’s daughter a pass on her patently ludicrous statement:
Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a former state comptroller and Austin mayor, said her late father could not have known about Simkins’ Klan connection.
“My dad was a staunch, staunch advocate for civil rights. He would never have condoned anything that gave any credibility to anything having to do with the KKK. He’d be leading the charge today to change the name,” Strayhorn said.
Yeah, either your Dad decided it was a great idea to name a dorm after a Klansman the year integration went before the Supreme Court, or he just didn’t care enough to check the backgrounds of people he wanted to honor.
Still, it’s possible that Page Keeton had a change of heart at some point:
Keeton, who died in 1999, was dean for 25 years.
In the early 1960s, one of his professors was summoned to appear before the regents, who were angry that he was giving legal advice to students suing to integrate dormitories, according to “Integrating the 40 Acres,” a book by Dwonna Goldstone.
Word soon came that if the regents insisted on the professor’s appearance, the entire law faculty would resign. The regents backed down. Such a line in the sand could not have been drawn without the dean’s backing, Russell said.
Who knows, in ten years maybe Lindsey Lohan will join a convent.
For the current administration, it’s credible that the exploits of Simkins were lost to history and now come as a surprise. This is exactly why Holocaust deniers are so dangerous and evil — civilization has a way of forgetting its most evil moments.
But now that we’ve remembered who Simkins was, what should UT do about it? It’s a full university issue, and the administration is trying to figure out what the most appropriate step is:
Gregory Vincent, UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, said university President William Powers Jr. has charged him with forming a work group of students, faculty members and staff members and with reporting back with recommendations on whether to rename the dorm by the end of June.
“We’ve been talking about this since the article came up. We want to be sure that we’re doing this in a thoughtful way and not in a reactionary way,” taking care to avoid “rewriting history” while also ensuring a campus atmosphere that is “inclusive and makes people feel welcome,” Vincent said.
In ancient Egypt, when a figure fell out of favor, their name was scratched off the tablets and monuments of the land’s history. I suppose UT could carry out the modern equivalent with Simkins. Getting his name off of the dorm seems like the easiest approach.
But it’s a bit unsatisfying, isn’t it? All we’ve heard from people associated with UT is how they didn’t know about this or how it was an unintentional mistake. Scratching the name off seems like just another attempt to pretend that this horrible history isn’t a part of the institution.
Instead, maybe Texas could do a bit more to help future generations overcome this part of the school’s history, without trying to ignore it and pretend it never happened. How many African-Americans were wrongly convicted during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras? The UT Simkins Center for Righting Historical Wrongs would be interesting. Come to think of it, I bet there are a lot of public university buildings named after historical assholes that nobody can remember. The Simkins Institute for Historical Background Checks could be useful.
At the very least, UT could liaise with the Southern Poverty Law Center and join in the fight to monitor hate groups and provide legal counsel to victims of oppression. The Simkins Center for Minority Defense is just the kind of thing that would make that jackass Simkins roll over in his grave.
I’m just saying, faced with this situation, there are a lot of positive things the university could do. The solution to unfortunate history isn’t to ignore it; it’s to try to make the future better.