Home / General / How many Texans does it take to decide whether a university dormitory should be named for a Reconstruction-era Klansman?

How many Texans does it take to decide whether a university dormitory should be named for a Reconstruction-era Klansman?

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Nineteen, it seems.

This story has evidently been making the rounds for a few weeks now, though I somehow managed not to hear about it. For background detail, the place to begin is with Thomas Russell, a law professor at Denver University who recently finished a paper (available here) detailing the history of William Stewart Simkins, the Confederate colonel from South Carolina who helped found the KKK in Florida before migrating to Texas at some point midway through Grant’s presidency. After arriving in Texas, Simkins set up a law practice and eventually took a position at the UT law school. He remained there for thirty years (1899-1929), during which time his greatest accomplishment was to deliver an annual lecture in late May — timed to coincide with Dixie or Confederate Day festivities — on the virtues and historical necessity of the KKK during Reconstruction. The first of these commemorative events took place in 1914, the year that DW Griffith filmed Birth of a Nation. Indeed, Simkins’ narrative of the Klan’s rise could easily have been mistaken for Griffith’s screenplay, or for the trilogy of Thomas Dixon novels that inspired it. In his speeches and writings, Simkins bragged openly about assaulting troublesome Negroes during his years with the Invisible Empire. He also crowed about his role in an 1868 railroad heist that liberated a shipment of muskets intended for the Florida militia. And as David Kopel points out, Simkins directed the Klan in three of the most violent counties in the state during the late 1860s; his actual crimes almost certainly included murder.

By the time the US Supreme Court overturned school segregation in 1954, the white supremacists who ran the University of Texas had already been humiliated by the Sweatt ruling (1950), which desegregated the very law school that had once employed Colonel Simkins. As Russell’s paper explains, the university responded to these rulings by creating an admissions architecture intended to limit the number of black students admitted to undergraduate and professional programs. It also decided — five weeks after Brown — to name its new graduate dormitory after a man who’d waged war against the United States, who’d organized and presided over a band of domestic terrorists, and who renewed his Southern bona fides each year by publicly boasting of his assaults upon private citizens and his crimes against the state of Florida.

I’m tempted to write “Only in Texas,” but somehow I’m sure that’s not true…

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  • wengler

    Nathaniel Bedford Forrest comes to mind. See, unlike Mr. Simkins, Forrest made his mark by killing surrendered black soldiers during the Civil War. This of course makes him a Southern hero to this day.

    And ol’ Forrest was supposedly the first Grand Master in the KKK. Hell of a fighter though. Reasonable people can disagree whether his slaughter of black people means we shouldn’t honor him.

  • The key code words that the 19 will use in their report will be “heritage” and “tradition”. Chances are that “beloved teacher” will find its way in too.

    • mds

      Well, the first two do seem to have been involved in decisions to keep the name for Calhoun College at Yale. To be fair, Calhoun’s odious opinions get sufficient coverage on campus nowadays that I’ve started entertaining the notion that it might actually serve a “Never Forget” purpose. And at least there’s a plaque pointing out the ways in which JCC was a jerk. I suspect that there’s going to be far more hero worship showing up with Simkins.

  • DrDick

    The first president of the University of Oklahoma (where I went to graduate school) was at one point the head of the Oklahoma Klan, as was an early governor of the state. Throughout the South and border states (which Oklahoma and Texas both are), the local elites were deeply embedded in and generally provided the leadership for the Klan at least until WW II and often well into the 1950s.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      This is not quite right. David Ross Boyd, the first president of OU, had nothing whatsoever to do with the Klan AFAIK. Edwin DeBarr, however, who was one of the first faculty members at OU and later (in 1908) became the University’s first Vice President, was a leader of the Klan. To the credit of my employer, the University of Oklahoma took his name off of a building when this came to light in the 1980s. (Source)

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        …and neither Boyd nor DeBarr was ever Governor of either Oklahoma Territory or the State of Oklahoma (here’s a list of people who were).

        • DrDick

          I was referencing two different people, one at the university and one who was governor (cannot remember which one right now, but it was in the 10s or 20s, IIRC). I will blame my fuzzy memory of information garnered more than 20 years ago when I was in graduate school there for the mistaking Boyd for DeBarr. FWIW, I am a native Okie and a graduate of OU (Ph.D. ’87).

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            No worries, DrDick! Before double checking I was about to write that Old Science Hall had been named after DeBarr when it was in fact the Chemistry Building. We all make little mistakes. However, Boyd was, as far as I can tell, a perfectly decent sort who doesn’t deserve to be confused with DeBarr.

  • rea

    Simkins is a much clearer case than Forrest–Forrest denied Klan membership, and responsibility for the Ft. Pillow massacre, perhaps falsely, while Simkins was proud of being a Klan member and participating in its atrocities.

    • davenoon

      Right. But the problem rests not merely with the fact that Simkins was a proud Klansman at a time when Texans were still lynching blacks by the dozens each year, but rather that the decision to name the dorm after him was motivated by opposition to desegregation rulings in the 1950s. So removing Simkins’ name from the building would acknowledge that he was an odious person while simultaneously undoing an honor that was inspired by reactionary racial chauvinism.

  • Antonio Conselheiro

    William Quantrill has never received the recognition he deserves.

    • rea

      Oh, he received exactly the recognition he deserved, just outside of Taylorsville, Ky.

      • Karl Steel

        “Oh, he received exactly the recognition he deserved, just outside of Taylorsville, Ky.”
        WIN

  • I’d like to think it’d take less than 19 committee members and four members — this is Austin we’re talking about. Seems a bit ridiculous that any university would want to take ’til the end of the month to make that kind of decision…

  • Warren Terra

    It’s not surprising they’d want to push the decision past June to avoid confrontations with alumni (of whichever party they disappoint, good ol boys or antiracists) who will be attending Commencement.

  • Notorious P.A.T.

    But Robert Byrd used to be in the KKK!! ! !!!

  • Think they just want the cover from the reactionaries by saying the the repeal was unanimous throughout the community. At least I hoped they cherry picked the EFF outta that committee with rational humans.

  • Bill Wilson

    Byrd’s name comes up a lot while debating this issue. There is a difference in Simkins’ attitude versus that of Byrd. Byrd has apologized many times, never participated in violent acts and has demonstrated contrition. So the question remains…. “Why would UT honor a LAW school prof who organized and promoted a terrorist organization operating OUTSIDE THE LAW?” Why would UT honor a terrorist? This link provides more detail on the ugly nature of Simkins: http://volokh.com/2010/05/24/the-bernadine-dorh

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