Problematic Eponymy

I attend a university called Tulane in a city called New Orleans. The pre-colonial name for the place where these things are is Bulbancha. Before Paul Tulane gave money for the land on which the university now sits, the institution was the medical department of the public University of Louisiana. His endowment was motivated by at least two reasons.

  1. Vanity (he had already tried to pay Princeton University to rename that school for him).
  2. Perpetuating racial segregation and inequality.

This latter reason is even explicit in his letter of endowment – that the institution should serve for the education and betterment of young white persons of New Orleans.

He is also supposed to have been the largest private donor to the Confederate States of America, and was a beneficiary of organizations that constructed Confederate monuments in the post-war period.

These facts are often repeated among those that are concerned about the persistence of monuments to bigots and systems of oppression throughout our landscapes, and some of this picture can even be found on Paul Tulane’s Wikipedia page. The primary sources, though, are harder to come by, and one imagines that part of the reason is that this is an issue the modern university does not want to have to address. Indeed, on the university’s history page, the clause which founded its modern incarnation as a white institution is conveniently omitted. In the university’s timeline, there is no mention that it was in fact an exclusively white institution until 1963, when the Board succumbed to the threat of lawsuits and a move by the Ford Foundation to pull grant funding unless the school was integrated.

The university is taking baby-steps towards examining its racist past, recently removing a prominent campus bell that was “discovered” to have been used on a plantation. The bell was donated by a university board member at the time of integration. Its purpose, sources say, was to serve as a menacing reminder of the powers that be, though this history has also been white-washed. And after a resolution passed by the university’s student government calling for the renaming of an on-campus building named for stauch segregationist F. Edward Hebert, the administration refused on the grounds that they didn’t want to upset Hebert’s descendants.

While I think we should all have an opportunity to learn more about the history of Paul Tulane and the institution that bears his name before rushing to judgement and action, what I know already causes me trouble every time I have to say the name “Tulane.” It makes me feel complicit in a celebration of oppression which this man seemed to intend as his legacy. But in my personal and professional life, it is something I am forced to do just to communicate the basic facts of where I am, what I do, who I know, and how I make a living. White supremacy is baked in deep.

I knew already when I decided to attend this university that it was a symbol and bastion of inequity – a predominantly white, very expensive school for the upper-classes in a city which is predominantly black and poorer than most. But I confess I didn’t know anything about the history of the institution — an institution which, for the record, has been quite good to me. Questions of “school spirit” aside, I have learned much, and been afforded a living to pursue what I wished to during my time here. But now, on the way out, and for the good of all those that follow, I think the university needs some truth and reconciliation, and perhaps some renaming.

We must examine what it means for this university to be named for this person. Many people in many places have been and continue to ask such questions, and I am grateful for their initiative and inspiration. Sometimes it has led to action, but it has always led to important discussion.

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