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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