Lost Cause No Longer

In 2005, a court barred Vanderbilt from removing "Confederate" from the facade of a building, citing the terms of a gift. The university is returning the gift at today's value -- and will now remove the word.

August 16, 2016

In 2005, Vanderbilt conceded defeat in its legal battle to remove the word "Confederate" from one of its residency halls, which was built as Confederate Memorial Hall but which the university prefers to call just Memorial Hall.

The university had announced plans to remove the word in 2002, but the Tennessee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which donated funds for the building in 1933, sued, arguing that the university committed to the name when it took the money. A Tennessee appeals court ruled in favor of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, saying that Vanderbilt could remove the word "Confederate" only if it repaid the group the value of the gift in contemporary dollars.

On Monday, the university announced it would do just that. The 1933 gift was for $50,000. Consistent with the appeals court ruling, the university will give the Tennessee chapter of the Confederate memorial group $1.2 million. The funds came from anonymous donors, with the specific purpose of removing "Confederate" from the building.

“The residence hall bearing the inscription Confederate Memorial Hall has been a symbol of exclusion, and a divisive contradiction of our hopes and dreams of being a truly great and inclusive university,” said a statement from Nicholas S. Zeppos, chancellor of the university. “It spoke to a past of racial segregation, slavery and the terrible conflict over the unrealized high ideals of our nation and our university, and looms over a present that continues to struggle to end the tragic effects of racial segregation and strife."

Many colleges and universities have been facing demands that they rename buildings that honor racists or those with ties to slavery or the Confederacy. Vanderbilt students have been pushing the issue for years, and Zeppos said that removing "Confederate" was vital to the university's mission.

“Many generations of students, faculty and staff have struggled with, argued about and debated with vigor this hall. We have asked time and again how can we have this symbol in the sky -- a pediment is intended to draw a gaze upward -- as part of our aspirational goals?” he said. “Our debates and discussions have consistently returned over these many years to the same core question: Can we continue to strive for that diverse and inclusive community where we educate the leaders that our communities, nation and world so desperately need, with this hall as so created? My view, like that of so many in the past, and so many in our present, is that we cannot.”

Representatives of the Tennessee chapter of the United Daughters referred questions to the group's lawyer, Doug Jones. He said that the university was "silly" to remove the word "Confederate" and called the move "political correctness."

"My client is a historical preservation group. They raise money for scholarships and they put flowers in cemeteries. They are very disappointed," he said. "This isn't about liberal or conservative, but about people who appreciate education and history, and how troubling it is to be erasing or sanitizing history."

On social media, most reaction to Vanderbilt's announcement was positive, with some expressing surprise that the United Daughters of the Confederacy still exists.

Some, however, criticized the decision.


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