BERNSTEIN: Honoring individuals

By naming the new Alderman dorm after a University slave, we can help preserve a part of history

As part of an ongoing renovation project, Housing and Residence Life will erect a new building — currently called “Building 6” — in the Alderman Road residence area. The building will serve as a first-year student dorm and should be completed by this summer. However, one element of the building’s completion that has not yet been determined is what the building will be named.

At first, naming this dorm may not seem significant to students, but it actually presents us with a unique opportunity to confront larger issues at our school. Consider the current atmosphere at the University: as my fellow columnist Nazar Aljassar writes, we are slowly but steadily coming to terms with our horrific legacy of slavery, as evidenced by the recent creation of the President’s Commission on Slavery and its October Slavery symposium. One of the biggest questions facing us has been how to best acknowledge and commemorate the enslaved Americans who built and maintained this school — and naming Building 6 in their honor is one small way we can do so.

According to Robert Sweeney, Senior Vice President for University Advancement and chair of the President’s Committee on Names, “The Committee generally encounters two types of namings: philanthropic and honorary.” The Committee itself approves name suggestions which are passed on to the Board of Visitors, which in turn makes a final decision. When namings are honorary, the Committee selects nominees from an existing pool of recommendations, though individuals can email recommendations in. Typically the Committee maintains preference for well-regarded and devoted faculty members and administrators.

But if individuals who are devoted to this school deserve this honor, surely the enslaved laborers who built this school deserve it tenfold — especially when slave owners have been commemorated through building names. Two of our academic buildings are named for Joseph C. Cabell, a Virginia politician who owned slaves. Bonnycastle, a dorm in Old Dorms, is named for Professor Charles Bonnycastle, who lived in Pavilion VIII as one of the University’s first professors, and whose ten-year-old slave Fielding was severely beaten by two students in 1838. And, of course, we cannot ignore the immense presence of Jefferson at this school, a man who owned 600 slaves over his lifetime.

The University has recognized that there is a gross disparity in our commemoration of slave-owners and our lack of recognition of their slaves — as well as a lack of diversity in building names in general. Sweeney points out, “The issue of diversity as it applies to the University’s honorary namings has been brought up by Committee on Names members, and the Committee is sensitive to the need to consider diversity when reviewing suggestions and requests.” This has culminated in several buildings that have not been named for white men, such as Wilsdorf Hall, named for physics professor Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf. But white men are still the most represented group in buildings with honorary names.

As it pertains to slavery, however, while larger and more informative memorials should (and, it seems, will) be erected, the naming of this dorm offers us a small opportunity to diversify our building names and introduce the topic of slavery into student discourse. In particular, one individual seems an obvious candidate for this honor.

Henry Martin was born into slavery at Monticello the day Jefferson died; at 19, he was leased out to the University, working in various positions until he became the University’s bell ringer, a job Martin held in high esteem. He held this position before and after the Civil War, as a slave and as a free man, ringing the University bell every day for 53 years, from 1856 until 1909.

The University has not ignored Martin’s story (there is a small plaque on the ground by the Chapel). But instead of simply acknowledging it, the University could promote it by naming Building 6 after Martin. Of course, we should not limit the discussion to Martin, when all enslaved and free University workers deserve our commemoration. Naming one dorm for one individual in no way commemorates all of those slaves and freedmen — but the more important point is that these individuals should be considered in this naming process. In a sense, it would be dehumanizing to dedicate the building to all enslaved workers as a group, since this would remove us from their individual stories. But naming this dorm for a particular enslaved worker would provoke reflection and further signal the University’s commitment to acknowledging this school’s past failures. The juxtaposition of a residence named for William Faulkner and one named for Henry Martin would be a powerful statement by our school about the value we place on these individuals — that a bell ringer like Martin is just as worthy of this honor as our other distinguished community members. We cannot ever redeem our school’s dark history, but we can set a precedent for its future by commemorating Martin’s story the way we have commemorated the stories of, in many ways, irredeemable men.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at d.bernstein@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories