Thursday, November 5, 2009

What's in a Name?

After years of being housed in a run-down, cockroach-infested and asbestos-contaminated building, the philosophy department at OSU has finally moved into a new venue: a freshly renovated building, elegantly appointed, that is nestled between a café and Theta Pond (my favorite place on campus, where I used to take my son just about every afternoon for the first two years of his life). My office window looks out onto a lovely courtyard where I expect I may spend some quality time on pleasant spring days.

I wasn’t prepared for just how psychologically uplifting this new environment would be. And yet I feel conflicted about enjoying it—and not just because I really should be missing Amanda, the squirrel who’d made a nest in my office window a couple of years ago and has been living there ever since.

Philosophy's new home is in a building called Murray Hall, an old residence hall that was largely unused for the two decades prior to the start of renovations a couple of years ago. It’s named after William H. Murray, an important figure in Oklahoma history. He presided over the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, served as the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and, later, as Governor during the Great Depression. If Oklahoma has a slate of founding fathers, Murray would be among them.

Murray was also a racist and an anti-Semite. In his capacity as president of the Constitutional Convention, he pushed for a “Jim Crow” constitution—an effort which proved successful largely because the move had such broad support. During his tenure as Speaker of the Oklahoma House, he continued his segregation efforts by pushing hard for the implementation of Jim Crow laws in the state.

In fact, if there is a person who might be singled out as the one who most clearly spearheaded the efforts to make Oklahoma a Jim Crow state, I think no one would be better qualified for that dubious honor than Murray. He was not just a vocal public champion of one of the greatest American injustices of the 20th Century. He was the lead figure in bringing it about that this grave institutional injustice was implemented in the state of Oklahoma.

On matters more directly relevant to higher education, Murray doesn’t come off much better, at least in terms of my own educational philosophy. Murray thought that education in the humanities and the sciences was wasted on most citizens, and he advocated a system in which the two state universities were restricted to the intellectual elite. He thought, furthermore, that it was a waste of resources for two universities to have overlapping programs, and so thought that Oklahoma A&M (now OSU) should focus largely on agricultural education while leaving the arts and sciences to OU.

The idea of a university system which affords a large percentage of the population the chance to pursue a well-rounded four-year education, in which specialization in some discipline is balanced with broad exposure to our cultural heritage and intellectual discoveries—this idea is not one that Murray endorsed. But it is the very thing, of course, that OSU and other state universities embody in their explicit mission statements and philosophies.

The more serious issue, however, is how Murray’s bigotry infected his views on higher education. In a speech during the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, Murray spoke the following words with respect to blacks and education:

He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers and many lines of agriculture, horticulture and mechanics in which he is an adept, but it is an entirely false notion that the negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions… I appreciate the old-time ex-slave, the old darky—and they are the salt of their race—who comes to me talking softly in that humble spirit which should characterize their actions and dealings with the white man…The worst negroes of which I know in my territory are in the Creek nation, where they have been allowed to vote, hold office, (and) attend school with the Creek Tribe…
In short, Murray thought that not only was higher education wasted on blacks, who purportedly lacked the intellectual ability to take advantage of it; he thought, furthermore, that blacks who had access to such education lost sight of their place in the racist hierarchy. And this, of course, he took to be a very bad thing. He appreciated “the old darky” who was fawning and submissive. Those who came to him as equals made him (as he admitted in the same speech) want to punch their lights out. This goes a long way towards explaining why, when Oklahoma A & M instituted a scholarship program in his name, blacks and Jews were excluded.

Murray also publicly declared that he thought Jews should be deported from the United States and relocated to Madagascar. This so-called “Madagascar Solution” has a long history and was also proposed by the Nazis in their early efforts to pursue “racial purity” in Germany—a precursor to their more horrific “Final Solution.” And while Murray was never a Nazi sympathizer, his ideological affinity for the racist and anti-Semitic commitments of the Nazis is one of the most disturbing facts about the man and his life.

Had Murray not been around, Oklahoma would surely still have become a Jim Crow state. He was part of a generation in which the things he stood for were not uncommon. If he had not taken the public stage to champion them, someone else would have done so. But as a matter of history, it is Murray who led the efforts to make Oklahoma a Jim Crow state. It is Murray who wrote the hateful anti-Semitic and racist tracts that defined the latter part of his career. Murray's name cannot be severed from Oklahoma’s legacy of racial oppression, because Murray was an instrumental figure in the creation of that legacy.

While Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, he didn’t found the institution of slavery. What he helped to found was a nation organized around principles of representative democracy, liberty, and equality under the law—principles which were later invoked by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights movement to denounce the system of segregation. Symbolically, then, Jefferson’s name is bound up with distinctive historic contributions that are worthy of being honored, even if not everything the man did or stood for should be honored. The question I ask myself is what Murray’s name is symbolically bound up with. My answer is that it is bound up with distinctive historic contributions that should not be honored today—even if, as is surely the case, there are things Murray did and stood for that deserve respect.

And I can see no reason to think that OSU has any obligation to preserve the name. The building wasn’t named after him because he financed the building or in other tangible ways supported the university. Rather, university administrators were worried that, because of Murray’s strident opposition to FDR and the New Deal, he would block their efforts to secure federal funds to build a new women’s dormitory. And so they cleverly decided to flatter him by promising to name the building after him. Such motivations are hardly the sort that we are duty-bound to respect today.

For all these reasons, as Murray Hall was being renovated I became part of the efforts to change the building’s name. There have, in fact, been numerous such efforts. Petititions to rename the building after Clara Luper, the most prominent leader in Oklahoma’s civil rights movement, have been circulating for years. Forums--including one in which Clara Luper came to speak--have been held. Most, if not all, of the departments moving into the building sent or signed off on letters to the administration in support of a name change. The Student Government Association voted in support of a name change. The Arts & Sciences Faculty Council initiated an official recommendation to un-name the building. This recommendation was supported by the University Faculty Council, and thus forwarded to the administration for a decision.

Also in the fall of 2007, I moderated a panel discussion sponsored by OSU’s Ethics Center on the topic of un-naming Murray Hall. There were two panelists: an English professor who spoke forcefully in favor of unnaming the building (citing considerations very much in the spirit of those I’ve offered above), and a member of the history department (the only person we could find who was willing to advocate publicly for preserving the name). His argument, interestingly, was that we should not hide from our history, even the ugly parts of it. He was worried that renaming the building would simply be an effort to sanitize the past, and that we would be better served by keeping the name (at least for now) and using it as a springboard to talk about Oklahoma’s history and its significance.

This is not a foolish argument. In fact, I became convinced as I listened to it that, even if the building’s name were to be changed, it was important to make sure that the history was not brushed under the rug. Even if, administratively, the building came to be called something else, the “Murray” name etched into the outside walls of the building should remain—and an explanation of the disparity should be offered through some kind of historical display discussing who Murray was.

From what I can gather, the administrative committee responsible for making the decision interviewed both panelists from our fall 2007 event, in addition to considering a letter sent to them by the Oklahoma Historical Society. To my knowledge, this constituted the bulk of their external research. That is, as far as I know they didn’t interview representatives of the African American student body or Jewish faculty slated to move into the new building, or anything along those lines.

But I don’t actually know everything that went into their deliberations. What I do know is that their decision was announced shortly after school was let out for the summer, in May of 2008—that is, shortly after students, staff, and faculty who might otherwise have come together to express outrage at the decision were scattered hither and yon for the summer. Whether this timing was coincidental is a matter about which I can only speculate.

And what was their decision? Obviously, my new office is in Murray Hall. But that’s not the whole story. There is also an historical display set up in the atrium on the lowest level of the building—an honest discussion of who Murray was, what he stood for, how the building got its name, and the controversy surrounding the name. The display was created by the same historian who was on the panel. While the administrative committee voted against changing the name “for now,” they supported the creation of such a display as part of an ongoing conversation about the building’s name.

When I first heard about this decision, what I felt can best be described as moral outrage. I viewed the display as little more than a bone thrown to the opposition. Now, while I still disagree with the decision, my reaction is more nuanced and emotionally muted.

I’ve walked through the display several times, and it’s good. So good, in fact, that its presence in the building changes the symbolic meaning of the building’s name. In the absence of that display, the default meaning of a building’s name is veneration: the person named is lifted up and symbolically affirmed. In the case of a donor, the affirmation is one of gratitude (or, put more cynically, an affirmation of fiduciary indebtedness). But in the case of someone who hasn’t funded the university’s efforts, the name is more purely a gesture of honor (even if the purpose of making that gesture might have been nothing more than appeasement).

But this display changes that default meaning. In it, we learn what Murray stood for and did with unflinching honesty. His more positive contributions to Oklahoma’s history are included, of course, but so is the substance of what I discuss above. From now on, this building will be unique among all buildings on campus, in that there will be a face and a history attached to that name.

And most people who come to know that the building is named for that Murray, the bigot who spearheaded Jim Crow in Oklahoma, are likely to have gained that knowledge from a display in the building itself. And so, if they are disturbed by what the name represents, it will be because an honest display in the building gave them reason to be.

And this is important. It conveys, in effect, the following message: “We, today, do not affirm the venerative gesture that was made decades ago when the building was first named. Instead, we question it and treat it as a lesson in history.”

For me, this helped make it possible to move into the new building without feeling as if I were betraying my values. But is it enough?

It would, for me, have been intolerable to actively honor, even on a perfunctory symbolic level, what the Murray name has come to represent. In the absence of the historical display, the refusal to change the name in response to an official recommendation would have been a symbolic act whose significance was precisely that: to lift up what should not be lifted up. This intolerable message has been largely neutralized by the display.

But the university could have done more. It still can. It’s one thing to neutralize a negative symbolic message. It is something else again to express, symbolically, an opposing positive message. Changing the building’s name could be a way to do the latter.

As of now, the university has managed to declare, “This name, etched on the walls of this building, is not what we stand for.” But that is only half the message that, in my view, needs to be expressed. I think the university can and should do more: Plant a new name in the grass outside the building, a name that resonates with the ethics of inclusion that Murray opposed. A name like “Clara Luper.” Let the university declare, “This name, planted here amidst the petunias, represents what we strive to be.”


  1. Great post - thanks for writing about the delicate balance of observing the past as we look to the present and the future.

  2. You could, if only for the sake of your own consciousness, pretend that the name of the building venerates Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), one of the earliest, if not the earliest advocate of the equality of the sexes in America and the first one to do so in published works. She was an influential spokesperson for improved female education and co-founder of The Ladies Academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts, so it would only be natural for a University building to be named after her. I know this would be a dishonest escape from both reality and your particular history, but as far as the name goes, Murray could be symbolically bound up with something positive.

  3. *make that conscience, not consciousness.... late night.

  4. Øystein: Thanks for the suggestion! At present I call the building Anything-but-Murray Hall in my syllabi, but I'm tempted to change that to Judith Sargent Murray Hall. Students will have no trouble finding me, and I can make a statement...

  5. I’m honored! If you do, please disregard my last remark where I said it would be a dishonest escape from reality and history. If I meant that, I would not have made the suggestion. It was a preemptive strike in case it would fall on stony ground [sic]. What I should have said is that although it may be seen that way, it could just as well be seen as a clever form of civil resistance. It would not necessarily involve sanitizing history, but making present judgments on how we wish to interpret and remember the past.

  6. FYI, Dr. Bryans is going to talk about the display at 6PM tomorrow in the parlor of the building.