July 13, 2010

This is one of those stories that you just don't expect to see, a holdover from what most of us thought was a bygone era of overt racism. Some background on how the persistence of one law professor brought some long overdue change to the University of Texas. The news report above is from KXAN Austin, from early May just as this became a news story. The ensuing uproar caused UT to change their tune from this initial news report.

(CNN) -- A University of Texas at Austin student dormitory named after a man prominent in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1800s may soon have its name changed, university officials said.

University President William Powers Jr. will ask the university system's board of regents to rename Simkins Residence Hall, following a recommendation by a 21-member advisory group, according to a press release from the university.

Gregory Vincent, the university's vice president of diversity and community engagement, told CNN affiliate KXAN that naming a public building after a self-proclaimed racist compromised the university's image.

"We're certainly not erasing Professor Simkins from the annals of UT history," said Vincent. "All we are saying is that honorific is a very special designation and it should not harm the university's reputation."

If approved by board members, the building will be renamed Creekside Dormitory, for a creek that runs nearby, university officials said.
According to the university, the hall -- built in the 1950s to house male law students and graduate students -- was named for William Stewart Simkins, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Simkins taught at the university's law school from 1899 until his death in 1929.The controversy over the dorm name came after a former UT law professor Tom Russell initiated research on Simkins.

Published early this year, Russell's research article claimed that UT officials named the dorm in the 1950s after a Klan member as another way to intimidate African-Americans after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education.

"Professor Simkins helped to organize the Ku Klux Klan in Florida at the conclusion of the American Civil War, and he advocated his Klan past to Texas students," said Russell, now teaching at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law.

"During the 1950s, the memory and history of Professor Simkins supported the university's resistance to integration. As the university faced pressure to admit African-American students, the university's faculty council voted to name a dormitory after the Klansman and law professor," Russell wrote.

"During this time period, alumni also presented the law school with a portrait of Professor Simkins. Portraits and a bust of Professor Simkins occupied prominent positions within the law school through the 1990s," he said.

And Simkins was not exactly shy about his past either, as he would recount the details in a yearly address at the University of Texas, entitled Why the Ku Klux Klan?, which you can read in its entirely online.

The Klan was composed of the best young men of the land, soldiers of the Southern army, many of them heroes in battle, and now as fearless in their duty as they had been in war. Our organization was compact, and we could assemble several hundred men at almost any point of the black belt on short notice and in time to quell any disturbance of a serious nature. Our mission was the protection of our women and children from the disorders of the time, and to suppress crime as far as it could be done without disclosing our identity, and in doing so I come with no blood-curdling stories as the result of our operations. We controlled by mystery; there was our power. When anyone, whether white or black, was obnoxious to the community by reason of specific crimes such as theft, arson, or swindling; or inflammatory in word or conduct, all we had to do was to visit his abode at midnight and tack our sign upon his door and his voice would no longer be heard in the land. The change in the conduct of the negro as well as the carpetbagger, and even in the operations of the Freedman's Bureau in 1869 and 1870 was marvelous. It was the force, not of numbers, but of mystery.

Simkins, as Klan leader in Taylor, Madison, and Jefferson counties did not detail the lynchings, torture and arson that the Ku Klux Klan did but history records 25 lynchings in Madison county alone during his time there (approx 1867-1871). As David Kopel noted,
"As far as the record shows, Simkins never claimed that any Klan actions in those counties had been carried out contrary to his orders, or that he regretted anything the Klan did in those counties. Accordingly, it is plausible to hold Simkins personally responsible [for] Klan activity there."

And in Prof. Russell's opinion, "Professor Simkins was a Klansman, a white supremacist, a terrorist, and he really doesn't deserve to have the continuing honor of his name upon a dormitory."

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