Rename AycockOn Wednesday, the Duke Student Government unanimously adopted a resolution advocating for the renaming of Aycock dormitory. Dubbed the father of public education in North Carolina, Charles Aycock was also a leading spokesman in white supremacy movements and frequently employed vitriolic and defamatory language towards African Americans. The resolution recommends that the dorm be renamed after Julian Abele, the black architect who designed much of West Campus.
Given Aycock’s racial views, we think renaming Aycock dormitory is an unambiguously good idea.
The University will, however, likely resist renaming Aycock dorm. Such a move may set a precedent of renaming buildings that are named after individuals who had connections to white supremacy—an abhorrent but fairly common perspective among North Carolina’s past white leaders. Nonetheless, because Aycock made no financial or intellectual contributions to Duke, there is no reason for his name to remain attached to our school. There is no justification for commemorating a deeply racist man who did little to directly improve the University.
Although it is important to examine the history of Charles Aycock, the resolution also prompts us to think beyond this particular case of problematic naming. The Aycock case allows us to delve into more general questions about the power and significance of naming and renaming buildings. What is Duke signifying when it names buildings after individuals? How do we determine whether an individual’s contributions merit a building named in his or her honor? Can positive intellectual contributions outweigh acts that are morally wrong?
Regardless of how or why it exists, a building's name reflects the University’s values and projects the history that the University wants to tell about itself. When deciding to honorifically name a building for an individual, the University should take into account the degree to which that individual’s life reflects the University’s goals and principles.
There have been numerous cases in Duke’s history in which such a standard has been applied. Duke actively resisted the construction of Richard Nixon’s presidential library on campus, fearing that Nixon’s tainted political career would tarnish the University’s reputation. Inversely, naming the Sanford School of Public Policy after Terry Sanford has had lasting positive impacts on succeeding waves of students. The eponymous Sanford was a well-respected North Carolina governor who is remembered for his contributions to civil rights and education within the state. Naming the school after him sets a model for students, tying them to a larger history of socially progressive public policy.
We must realize that honorifically naming buildings after individuals is a form of historiography—a kind of story telling that reflects both our University’s principles and institutional biases. Ponder for a moment the sparsity of Duke buildings named after non-white and female individuals. Our story can change only if we bring to light the contributions of overlooked individuals in our University’s history.
In order to properly acknowledge Julian Abele’s legacy as West Campus’s architect, we propose renaming the newly renovated West Union building after him. Let us re-remember our past in order to make our present better.