The Collegian
Saturday, June 15, 2024

OPINION: What is in a name?

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

There is nothing “mere” about symbols. In a modern world populated by an endless river of abstractions, the manipulation of symbols is the nature and virtue of language, art, science, technology, law and indeed life. What ought we to make, then, of the symbolism laid bare before our eyes in the University administration’s continued refusal to rename Mitchell-Freeman and Ryland halls?

I need not take up much of the reader’s time recapitulating the lives of any involved. Robert Ryland, the gleeful enslaver, is dead. Douglas Southall Freeman, the eugenicist, is dead. Enslaved people and the victims of eugenics are dead too. Their vocality in the stream of history is silenced forever. But their memory is forged by the sentient.

Memory’s magistrates are elected by the congress of the living. It is the living who obtain a monopoly on the meaning and measure of the worlds that lived before, the living who negotiate with our most troublesome inheritances.

It is clear that the administration’s response thus far is wholly insufficient. No amount of obfuscation, no number of public statements, no amount of circular reasoning and no amount of hiding behind sclerotic bureaucracy—the Board has made its decision!—will sully that fact. 

Lest we be mistaken, the administration’s decision is not devoid of moral content. Prepending John Mitchell Jr.’s name to Freeman Hall creates a dastardly moral equivalence between a vicious racist and the Black man who enlisted in opposition to that racism. Mitchell and Freeman were not equaled in history; the moral character of Mitchell is categorically superior to that of Freeman. Yet memory attempts to make equal what history clearly makes unequal.

Meanwhile, the supposed remembrance of enslaved people’s names in Ryland Hall only serves to prostitute their toil by permanently consigning them in our memory to the status of subjection imposed upon them, recalling them only in terms of the bitter chalice of suffering they did not want. To add insult to injury, this arrangement leans into the pointy end of white supremacy by reifying the barbaric relations between master and slave—the master gets a building, the slaves get a plaque. The Board has made its decision!

This is not Custer’s Last Stand against cancel culture. This is a struggle for absolution. We are trapped in a constant conversation with the past and the future. 

My faith is steadfast that student opposition to these buildings’ names holds the right of the moral principle and that we have the greater part of the initiative. That the president of this institution now crouches behind transparent pretenses of institutional constraint — the Board has made its decision! — is a pockmark on his legacy that will last. 

My tenure at this institution may not endure to witness the erasure of the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. But the gap will be erased. The conversation with the past and the future goes on. Posterity will have the last word.

Contact contributor Gabe Josephs at

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