Lost Cause at Vanderbilt

University concedes defeat in its bid to remove the word "Confederate" from the name on a building.
July 13, 2005

The Battle of Nashville was fought in 1864, but Civil War skirmishing has been plentiful in the city for the past three years -- much to the frustration of Vanderbilt University.

With strong support from its black students and alumni, Vanderbilt has been waging a legal fight to remove the word "Confederate" from the front of a dormitory. But the move has outraged groups that seek to honor and study Confederate history. On Monday, Vanderbilt announced that it was giving up its battle -- although the university will continue to refer to the building without the "Confederate" name in all publications, maps and public statements.

"We have achieved what we wanted to achieve," said Michael J. Schoenfeld, vice chancellor for public affairs at the university. He stressed that the only place that the name of the building wouldn't change was in the inscription on it. "We don't think carrying this forward is in Vanderbilt's interest."

In May, a Tennessee appeals court ruled that Vanderbilt could not drop "Confederate" from the building's facade -- unless it returned a donation it received in 1933 at the value of the donation in today's dollars.That decision reversed a lower court’s decision that allowed Vanderbilt to drop “Confederate” from the name.

The dispute dates to a move by Vanderbilt in 2002 to drop "Confederate" from the name of "Confederate Memorial Hall." The Tennessee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which gave the university money for the building in 1933, went to court to challenge the decision.

The legal debate has focused on the obligations of nonprofit groups not to change gift conditions years (or decades) after a donation has been received. But the public debate has broadened to questions about race relations and history.

The debate has been frustrating to many at the university. The name change was seen as an effort to reach out to minority students who felt alienated by honors for the Confederacy. But the discussion of the name change has led to many public statements by pro-Confederate groups that have offended the very students Vanderbilt was trying to reach out to, and those statements have been given much more prominence because of the court battles.

Schoenfeld said that Vanderbilt wanted to encourage reasoned discussions of these issues. So the university plans to create an annual forum or lecture that will deal with issues of race, history, memory and the Civil War. "We want an opportunity for our students, faculty and the community to explore these issues," he said.

Asked why Vanderbilt didn't repay the Daughters of the Confederacy -- as the appeals court ruling would have permitted for the name change -- Schoenfeld said, "We didn't think that was a wise use of Vanderbilt's resources."

He stressed that other buildings on Vanderbilt's campus (and on many campuses) have had their names changed over the years and are known widely by their new names -- even if there is an inscription somewhere on a building with an old name. He emphasized that the court ruling Vanderbilt is not appealing applies only to an inscription, and does not govern anything else. "The name of that building, since 2002, has been Memorial Hall," Schoenfeld said.

Zakiya Smith, who will be a senior and president of the Black Student Alliance in the fall, is in London this summer, so she said via e-mail that she doesn't have a sense of how black students generally will react to Vanderbilt's decision not to appeal. But she said she was disappointed and expected others would share that view.

"I think that as Vanderbilt becomes a globally recognized name, it is not only insulting but just ridiculous to continue with this name on the building," she said. She acknowledged that supporters of the Confederate name have said that they were just trying to honor dead soldiers, few of whom owned slaves, but Smith said those arguments were "not sufficient" to justify the name.

"When you lose a war, you lost. You don't get the spoils of victory," Smith said. "While the lives lost were a tragedy, the cause that they fought for undeniably supported slavery whether these men actually owned slaves or not."

Douglas Jones, a Nashville lawyer for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said the group was pleased that the name would stay on the building, and said that the name has nothing to do with slavery.

"Slavery was terrible, but the whole terrible Civil War was a part of American history and this is part of what we are preserving, which is American history," Jones said. "This building is about honoring Tennessee boys who died in the war."


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