In a move that took the community by surprise, the Marshall University Board of Governors voted last week to remove the name of Albert Gallatin Jenkins from a campus building. The day before, the Kanawha County Board of Education voted to remove the name of Stonewall Jackson from a middle school whose student body is mostly black and biracial.
Coincidence? Probably, as there is no reason to believe the two boards coordinated their actions. But it does point to something: The prevailing sentiment has turned on honoring Confederate generals.
Jenkins was a prominent Cabell County resident of the 1800s. He was educated at Harvard. He served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and owned a 4,400-acre plantation in the Green Bottom area. He was also a general in the army of the Confederate States of America and the owner of about 50 slaves.
Jenkins Hall has been on the Marshall campus and has carried Jenkins’ name since the 1930s. Those were the days of segregation, and probably not a lot of students at that time objected to the building’s name.
But times have changed. Attitudes toward the Confederacy have changed.
The Board of Governors had tried to avoid the central question in all this: Does a university that constantly advocates for diversity and inclusion need to honor a slave owner who not only fought for the right to own slaves but who also captured free black Americans and sold them into slavery himself?
Last year, the board decided to not answer that question in part because some donors had threatened to withhold money if Jenkins’ name was removed. With three new board members and the determination that donors had changed their minds, this group of board members took the necessary step of removing Jenkins’ name.
A statement issued by Marshall after the Tuesday meeting said, “Our board reaffirmed that commitment today by voting, not to erase history, but simply to no longer honor a man whose accomplishments do not provide the university with enduring value.”
Board member James Farley, who voted to keep the name last year, said Tuesday that threat of alienating major donors by changing the name of Jenkins Hall has diminished.
“They did not want us to make any changes,” Farley said in the meeting. “We thought at that time the financial impact — we would lose two, three or four people who said they might pull back their money. It was a large number. Millions. But we have since found out it is not that much, and through our new chair, he has called to talk to people that might pull away. And as we know, things have changed in the last six months or so, certainly within the last two years. We believe — we don’t know for sure — that we are not going to lose any money, and if it is, it is going to be very small.”
Farley said the board believes MU can raise upward of $1 million or more to rename the building.
Both the Marshall Board of Governors and the Kanawha County Board of Education took these actions in response to peaceful demands that the names be changed. Their constituencies asked for the name changes. Consensus was built. Action was taken.
The next step for both boards will be crucial: Finding new names for both buildings. For now Jenkins Hall will be known as the Education Building. Surely with Marshall’s rich history, a better name will be found. There’s no rush. Let’s get it right this time.