A controversy is brewing at the University of Texas at Austin over a residence hall named in honor of William Stewart Simkins, an unapologetic Ku Klux Klan organizer who later became a law professor at the University of Texas, a job he held from 1899 until his death in 1929.
A hastily assembled committee created by UT President William Powers will spend the rest of June debating the renaming of the dorm. Powers has said he wants a recommendation from the committee by the end of June.
On campus, Simkins was popular and known for his quirks and mentorship, but an article by Thomas Russell, a former University of Texas law professor and a historian, exposed both Simkins’s leadership in the Klan and the conspicuous omission of his racist past when his name was proposed for the dorm in 1955. The resulting community outcry prompted UT to form a working group that will propose a course of action on the dorm’s name.
Some worry that digging up the university’s racial past will prompt the reconsideration of its other buildings and statues. Like most Southern schools, The University of Texas at Austin houses on its campus a colorful historical cast. Theophilus Painter, after whom a science building is named, denied Heman Sweatt entry to UT School of Law, which prompted the landmark case Sweatt v. Painter, a US Supreme Court case that successfully challenged the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial segregation established by the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. Marble renditions of Confederate generals Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee commingle with students sitting on the grassy South Mall.
Other concerns come from the left: “My worry is that they’ll rename the building and pretend it never happened,” said Dave Player, a UT senior arguing against the renaming. In a state whose Board of Education is attempting to revise national history, “the fact that we think we can change history to fit our current worldview is dangerous. The university doesn’t want to acknowledge that it was a racist institution, but it was.”
For Kristen Thompson, president of the Black Student Alliance, that acknowledgment comes in the form of a new dorm name. “In the black community, we’re going to use this as a teaching moment to explain to incoming students the racism that used to exist and the racism that still exists,” said Thompson. “The history of Professor Simkins will never be lost because it’s something we’ll make sure every incoming student knows.”
The nineteen-member committee includes students, staff, faculty and community leaders. If the committee can come to a consensus, Powers will pitch the proposal to the University of Texas Board of Regents, who are empowered to make the final decision on the future name of what is now known as Simkins Dorm.