CHARLESTON - The Eastern Illinois University Naming Committee voted Tuesday to recommend not changing Douglas Hall's namesake from Stephen Douglas to Frederick Douglass.
The committee also suggested that EIU take steps to emphasize that Douglas Hall, part of a complex with Lincoln Hall, is named as part of a commemoration of the Sept. 18, 1858, Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston, not in tribute to Stephen Douglas as an individual, and to promote this debate history.
"That (debate) is an important thing that happened in Charleston and an important event to to commemorate," said Mary Anne Hanner, a presidential appointee to the committee.
On Tuesday, the committee considered a proposal authored by EIU English faculty member Christopher Hanlon. He, fellow faculty members, and other supporters have lobbied for a change because they say it is not appropriate to name the hall after Douglas, due to his pro-slavery legislative record and racist comments.
Contacted for an interview, Hanlon said since submitting his original proposal to the committee he has shifted away from the Frederick Douglass idea while still building support for getting EIU to drop the Stephen Douglas name. Hanlon said he will need time to decide if he will submit an updated name change proposal to the committee.
The panel is comprised of one representative each from the faculty, staff and student senates; the Council on Academic Affairs; and the Council of Chairs; and also includes two presidential appointees. They voted 5-0 against renaming the hall for Frederick Douglass, with two members absent.
All the committee members who were present expressed support for suggesting that EIU post a marker at Douglas Hall explaining the history of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and post historical information online about the namesakes of this and other buildings on campus.
There was also some informal discussion of alternative name ideas, such as Lincoln-Douglas east and west halls or Debate Hall.
Amanda Bos, representative for the Staff Senate, said much of the support within the campus community for the Douglas Hall name comes from Charleston having hosted one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
"I think it's really important that students know the context of the names for these dorms. It seems like we are commemorating Stephen Douglas," said committee member Marjorie Worthington.
Hanlon said he is thinks that the committee members' discussion indicates they concur with him that the name of Stephen Douglas is "more or less indefensible," and that EIU should not honor someone with Douglas' record.
"If one argues that the debates are what the building name honors, well, I disagree with that, but I note that such a view concedes the point that Douglas himself isn't worthy of public honors," Hanlon said.
Hanlon said he agrees with historian Stewart Winger that the names of the residence halls represent "an erasure of history, an account of the debates that closes the moral distance between Lincoln and Douglas."
Karen Gaines, representative of the Council of Chairs, said she was unsure if Frederick Douglass has a special significance for EIU in regard to him being a potential namesake for the hall. Douglass, a former slave, was a noted social reformer and orator in Lincoln's era.
Worthington noted during the meeting that Hanlon has changed the focus of his name change efforts and is now looking at notable Illinois historic figures as possible namesakes for the hall.
Hanlon said the Faculty Senate resolution in favor of renaming, for instance, did not specify who the new namesake should be for the building.
"I can imagine any number of Illinoisans we would all rather honor than Stephen Douglas. (Abolitionist) Owen Lovejoy, for instance, or for that matter either Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan. Either man would clearly make a better symbol than Stephen Douglas," Hanlon said.
Vice President for University Advancement Bob Martin, who facilitated the committee meeting, suggested that the committee take action on the submitted Frederick Douglass proposal and be ready to discuss other naming options later. Martin will forward the board's recommendation and meeting minutes to EIU President Bill Perry.
Worthington, a representative for the Faculty Senate, said as discussion on the Douglas Hall name continues EIU's administration should reach out to the Black Student Union and other African-American groups to see how they feel about the current name.
Ken Baker, a presidential appointee to the committee, said in regard to looking back at the record of Lincoln and Douglas that he wondered how his own views and actions will be viewed 150 years from now. He said Douglas took actions in regard to slavery that were widely supported by his electorate at the time.
Bos said looking with hindsight at Douglas and Lincoln, both men expressed views publicly and supported policies that were acceptable in the 1850-60s, but would not get them elected in the modern world. Bos said she is concerned about applying hindsight to the namesakes of buildings.
"If we rename one, do we have to do an audit of all the buildings' (names)?" Bos asked.
Contact Rob Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-6861.