The Texas Board of Regents did the right thing last week when it stripped the name of a long-dead white supremacist from a dormitory at the University of Texas. But it could have done even better.
The all-male dormitory formerly named for William Stewart Simkins will henceforth be known, blandly but inoffensively, as Creekside Dormitory. I think the Regents should have renamed the building for James Byrd, Jr., a victim of racial violence in Texas from our own recent past.
Simkins was a Civil War veteran who became a popular law professor at the Austin campus in the first decades of the 20th century. He also was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and co-founder of its Florida branch.
Simkins was not subtle about his racism during his lifetime. He spoke about his involvement in the KKK in campus speeches and in school publications. Writing about a Florida woman who complained of being insulted by a black man, Simkins bragged, “I seized a barrel stave lying near the hotel door and whipped that darkey down the street.”
Though the current university administration says it only recently became aware of Simkins’ racist past, we can surmise that those who named the dormitory in his honor knew exactly what the ex-Klan leader stood for. Simkins Hall opened in 1955, just one year after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. Texas, like many Southern states, resisted integrating its all-white flagship campus for years. We can safely assume that the dormitory’s name was one of many subtle and not-so-subtle gestures of defiance that followed the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
When Simkins’ history resurfaced, the university formed a panel, composed of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community leaders, which recommended changing the dorm’s name. The university’s president agreed, and the Board of Regents unanimously backed the change. But there was a surprising amount of disagreement along the way over whether to take down the name of a man who lectured about the law in the daylight but who practiced terrorism as a “night rider” after dark.
Some argued that changing the name would simply sweep the university’s past under the rug. Taking a different tack, a columnist for the school newspaper, The Daily Texan, wrote, “Keeping Simkins’ name on the dorm would demonstrate UT’s dedication to unrestricted freedom of discussion.” I hope this columnist was being ironic when he equated the KKK with freedom of discussion, but I fear “clueless” is a more accurate, yet still charitable, description.
Even so, opponents of the name change had a valid point. The name Simkins Hall was a reminder of, indeed a part of, the state’s (and our nation’s) sad racial history. Changing the dorm’s name to Creekside simply erases that history and offers nothing valuable in its place. The renaming was a missed opportunity to substitute our era’s values for the skewed and hateful views that prevailed in 1955.
James Byrd, Jr. was the victim of a brutal murder in Texas in the 1990s. His death helped give rise to a federal hate crimes act bearing his name along with that of Matthew Shephard. President Obama signed the act into law last year.
I wish the Texas regents had renamed the dormitory in Byrd’s honor, thereby allowing him to stand in for countless victims of racial violence in Texas and elsewhere. “Byrd Hall” would have been a reminder that we should not dismiss William Stewart Simkins as a relic of the past and his hatred as a historical artifact.
The Board of Regents made a statement when it removed Simkins’ name from that dormitory, but it could have made a bolder statement by renaming the building for Byrd. That statement would have been: “Never again.”