On the Naming of Buildings

Freeman Hall, University of Richmond
Photo Credit: Sandra Sellars, Richmond Free Press

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The University of Richmond has taken a nuanced, or ambivalent, position, depending on your perspective, in the kerfuffle over building names honoring slaveholders, Civil War generals, or supporters of segregation.

Before discussing its position, it may help to provide a brief profile of the school for readers who may not be familiar with it. UR is a small (3,147 undergraduates), private university situated on a beautiful, secluded campus in Richmond’s tony West End. In 1969, it was transformed from a financially-troubled,  local college into a well-endowed institution with a national presence when E. Claiborne Robins, chairman of the A.H. Robins pharmaceutical company, gave it $50 million. At the time, that was the largest amount a living benefactor had ever given an American university.

A large segment of its student body is from the Northeast; only 18 percent of the students are from Virginia. It is pricey: the annual cost of tuition, room, and board is $72,500. (Disclosure: My daughter is a graduate of the school. She had a generous scholarship; I could not have afforded it even back then when tuition was much more reasonable.)

Two buildings have been targeted by student government groups: Ryland Hall and Freeman Hall. The first was named after Robert Ryland, who was the first president (1841-1866) of what became the University of Richmond. His name on the building has drawn student ire because he was a slaveholder and, during his tenure as president, the institution hired slaves from local slave owners to help run its daily operations and serve students.

Freeman Hall is named after Douglas Southall Freeman, long-time editor of the Richmond News Leader and a strong supporter of segregation. He was also a noted historian.  His multi-volume biographies of George Washington and Robert E. Lee won Pulitizer Prizes and this three-volume Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command also has won acclaim. Finally, he was rector of the board of trustees of the University of Richmond from 1934 to 1950.

Mitchell-Freeman Hall        Photo credit: Michael Paul Williams/Richmond Times Dispatch

After reviewing extensive reports compiled on Freeman and Ryland, Ronald A. Crutcher, president of the university, recently announced that the university had decided both buildings would retain their names, with one major modification. To provide further context, Crutcher is the first Black president of the university. (He announced last fall that he wished to step down from the post of president.  The university recently announced a successor had been chosen.)

Freeman Hall will become Mitchell-Freeman Hall. John Mitchell, Jr. was the editor of the Richmond Planet in the first part of the 20th century and was one of the leading voices denouncing racism and segregation. He once ran for governor and frequently challenged Freeman in his editorials.

In explaining his choice to join the names of Mitchell and Freeman on the building, Crutcher said that, as a Black academic, he had often walked through the halls of buildings named after people who would have viewed him “as an inferior and an interloper simply because of my skin color. As a university president, I have been tempted to relegate such men to the ash heap of history.”  Instead, however, he opted for a “braided narrative.” He concluded:

“I firmly believe that removing Ryland’s and Freeman’s names would not compel us to do the hard, necessary, and uncomfortable work of grappling with the University’s ties to slavery and segregation, but would instead lead to further cultural and institutional silence and, ultimately, forgetting.”

Descendants of Mitchell have expressed delight at the recognition being accorded him.

As for Ryland Hall, Crutcher announced that the name would be retained, while permanent recognition would be given to the people he enslaved by dedicating a terrace in the renovated building to them.

Crutcher acknowledged that he was “not naïve enough to think that everyone’s going to be happy about our approach here.” It is certainly the case that some folks are unhappy. The student government leaders voiced dismay that the offending names will not be removed. A newly-formed coalition of Black students has accused the university of supporting white supremacy. They have issued a statement airing their discontent and demands, along with a petition, signed, as of Tuesday, by 550 students and staff. (The statement includes demands that go beyond the building name controversy.) In the greater community, the Richmond Free Press, a local influential newspaper that covers issues particularly concerning the Black community, voiced opposition to continuing to honor white supremacists. A columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch has declared that the university “cannot reject and uphold white supremacy at once. UR needs to pick a side.”

My Soapbox

I have been conflicted on this issue for some time, but the controversy at UR has helped to clarify my thinking. On the one hand, I think perhaps too much is being made over the naming of buildings. After a few years, most users of those buildings pay little attention to their names, except as a means of distinguishing one building from another. At William and Mary, I lived in two dorms, Brown and Stith Halls, and had no idea who they were named after and hardly, if ever, wondered.

I do not doubt President Crutcher’s sincerity, but I think he is naïve to think that having the names of both Mitchell and Freeman on the same building will lead to a “grappling with the University’s ties to slavery.” Rather, it seems as if he is trying to thread a needle and giving too much credit to the desire of students to be introspective. In a year or so, students will move on, “grappling” with other grievances.

On the other hand, institutions are defined somewhat by whom or what they honor. As for Ryland Hall, the university should retain that name. Yes, he was a slaveholder, but, he was also the first president of the institution that evolved into the present day University of Richmond. For that, he deserves recognition.  We can honor people for their achievements, while recognizing and condemning, their sins. After all, if we were to strip the name of any slaveholder off a public building, many of the buildings, as well as the name of the law school, at William and Mary would have to be renamed. James Madison and George Mason universities would be in for new names. The Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Patrick Henry state office buildings would be renamed. And, there is no need to talk about the University of Virginia.

That being said, the Freeman name should be taken off the UR building. Despite his acclaimed biography of George Washington, he has become identified with the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” Also, he was a staunch defender of segregation and white supremacy long after the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished.

In summary, I would draw the line at the Civil War. Persons who lived before that time and contributed to this country or an institution should be honored, despite their also being slaveholders, if that were the case. At the same time, their enslaving of human beings should not be overlooked or minimized. But persons who fought against the government of the United States and tried to divide this country should not be honored. Neither should we honor persons who actively supported segregation and publicly proclaimed that people were inferior on the basis of their skin color or heritage.

As to whose name should replace that of Freeman on the UR building, it is too late now, but I do not think it should be John Mitchell. As admirable as he was, he had no connection to the school. Rather, it seems he is being used as an excuse to keep the Freeman name. If the university had asked me, I would have advocated honoring some notable person who had been associated with the institution. Specifically, I would have suggested E. Bruce Heilman, president from 1971 to 1986, who led the development of the university to the institution it is today. To preempt any objection by any UR alumni reading this post, I realize that there is a E. Bruce Heilman Dining Center  But does anyone actually call it “Heilman Dining Hall”?

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37 responses to “On the Naming of Buildings”

  1. #therealwally Avatar

    When I was a first-year student at UR I lived in Barracks E. Barracks A through E are now gone. I must have missed history class that day when CSA generals A through E were discussed.

  2. First block of buildings – Building 101; Building 102; Building 103; etc.

    Second block of buildings – Building 201; Building 202; Building 203; etc.


    Boring as hell, but at least you don’t risk naming a building after someone who is later cancelled…

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      I have always appreciated the Navy numbering of buildings.

      “Excuse me, I’m looking for Building 22. This is 21 and the one across the street is 19, but there doesn’t seem to be a 22.”
      “Yes sir. Take this road to the next light, about a mile. Turn right, and Building 22 is the fifth on the right between buildings 68 and 90.”

      Until I visited USCG station in Yorktown.

      “Excuse me, I’m looking for Building 22.”
      “Yes sir. Take this road to the light. Turn right. Building 22 is the fifth building on the right between Buildings 20 and 24. Just like house numbers.”

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    A thoughtful commentary, thank you.

    A question – when these buildings were “named” – was the wider community – both white and black, asked for their views and support?

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      UR admitted its first full-time Black student in 1968. Freeman Hall was finished in 1965. Ryland Hall is the oldest building on campus. Built in 1913, it was originally called the Administration Building. From a quick internet search, I could not find out when the name was changed to Ryland Hall, but it certainly was before the 1960’s. In summary, I doubt the wider community was consulted on their views and support on the names.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I agree with you that Freeman’s name should go. I read his Lee biography and found it detailed but fawning. His views on race and eugenics were bad. If you want to honor a Richmond editor, try Virginius Dabney. Disclosure: I once taught two non credit courses at UR.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Dabney is out. Wrote many articles and books on Confederate Virginians. We can’t have that now can we?

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    That was a interesting article. I don’t think President Crutcher will satisfy the left handed students by simply changing some names around. What Crutcher should really consider is this: black students make up only 8% of the student body. 336 total. Why?

    72 grand a year? Only Yankees are dumb enough to come south and fork out that kind of money. They would be better off taking that quarter of a million dollars in tuition and riding the stock market.

    The one building that should be renamed is The Office of the Registrar. Change it to the Bastille of Highwaymen.

  6. tmtfairfax Avatar

    I like Dick’s line-drawing at the Civil War. It’s reasonable.

  7. tmtfairfax Avatar

    I like Dick’s line-drawing at the Civil War. It’s reasonable.

  8. “Neither should we honor persons who actively supported segregation and publicly proclaimed that people were inferior on the basis of their skin color or heritage.”

    Bye, bye Byrdie…


    “Hey, hey. Ho ho. Woodrow Wilson’s got to go!”

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Yep. The General Assembly has voted to remove the statute of Byrd from Capitol Square. http://richmondfreepress.com/news/2021/feb/25/harry-f-byrd-statue-be-moved-capitol-square/

      1. What should we do about Woodrow Wilson? He was a white supremacist extraordinaire. And he was far too intelligent to not know any better.

        1. tmtfairfax Avatar

          One does wonder why Woodrow Wilson gets a pass. But what does one expect from a region where many people think the Post plays it straight?

      2. Do you know what they plan to do with the statue?
        If no one else wants it I can think of a special use to put it to at my place…

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          I don’t think they have gotten that far. You could make the state an offer.

          1. Hmmmm. Maybe I will…

        2. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          For birds to use?

          1. Yes. We’ve had some vultures move in nearby recently and I think they’ll love it. You know, birds of a feather and all that…

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Propane cannons, if the neighbors are onboard.

          3. Propane? Just propane? No projectile? I KNEW I was doing something wrong…

          4. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Well, depends on whether your neighbor is a friendly.

  9. Timmy V Avatar

    Answering your question, no one called it “Heilman Dining Hall.” At least not when I was rockin’ the scene in 1987-1991. It was D-Hall or “The Heimlich.” Also, tuition plus room and board my senior year was $11,500. That works out to $22,000 in today’s dollars, inflation adjusted. I doubt the level of instruction has improved by $50,000 since then. Someone prove me wrong!

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Yes, tuition plus room and board was at that level or a little higher when my daughter graduated with the 1993 class. It increased significantly about ten years later. Under President William Cooper, the school increased tuition by 31 percent in 2005. It was part of a strategic plan developed by Cooper under the orders of the board to transform UR into one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation. The model was Williams College. That required raising faculty salaries in order to attract the best and hiring more faculty in order to improve the faculty/student ration. Also part of the thinking was that “the price signals academic quality to prospective students.” For prospective students then, a higher price means a better school. For a fascinating look at the decision-making process behind this tuition increase and higher education finance in general, see the Honors Thesis presented by a UR senior: https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1883&context=honors-theses

      1. Timmy V Avatar

        If memory serves, my class was 35% Virginian. Otherwise there were a few kids from the country day schools around Atlanta and Nashville and some Biffs and Buffys from Connecticut, but the *vast* majority were from NY, NJ and PA. As a public-school educated kid from SW VA, it was a culture shock. That said, my dearest enduring friends that I talk to every day are from NY, NJ, PA and MD.

  10. This is a nice, balanced treatment of the issue, Dick.

    It strikes me that UR has achieved the right balance — keep the names of the individuals who made such great contributions to the institutions, but add the names of other individuals who better reflect our values on race and social justice today — a form of contextualizing.

  11. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Albeit in my limited experiences and contacts, I have never known anyone, who really gave a damn about biographical history, to say, “History is a dead subject. It’s decided. Done. Just boring details, names and dates to be memorized. Stories to be accepted.”

    It’s simply none of that. The men and women are dead; their deeds done, words writ. However, it is our responsibility to re-evaluate them — continuously, AND WE DO. How many books are there on George Washington? If these figures are to be fixed forever, then one book would do it.

    But this really isn’t about them. We are not re-judging the men and women for whom these buildings and places are named, or for whom statues have been erected. We do that every time someone writes another book.

    We are judging the men and women who came after them, and who named the buildings for them. We’re having a political fight with our ancestors. It’s not that Freeman did or didn’t do something worthy of a building, but rather what the Hell were our great grandparents thinking in naming a building for him?

    And we are always free to “cancel” their choices and decisions on everything. We do it all of the time.

    ** I almost went down a path of “it’s not like they named these building for themselves. No one does that…”

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Good thoughtful comments. (I knew you had it in you when you wanted to.) I like the line, “We’re having a political fight with our ancestors.”

      You are right about “canceling” their choices. It is their choices about who or what to honor we are canceling, not the history. I don’t like the word “cancel” in this context. In my discussions with people on this subject, I argue that no one is trying to “cancel” or erase history. No one is burning history books or going through history books and deleting certain events or mention of certain people. Rather, we are choosing not to erect monuments to people or events that we now feel are not worthy of such monuments.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I once had a friend who described cultural changes perfectly. He said, “We face these changes like we are forced to climb Mt. Everest, but when we turn back and look, it was just a curb.”

        Sometimes just changing the name, increases the property value…


        so much so that people are trying to buy the loans from Deutche Bank knowing when he defaults, they make a killing by just removing 5 letters.

  12. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Over time in the Richmond area, I learn of the accomplishments of the African-American Press, notably the Richmond Planet and later, the Richmond Free Press. They took progressive approaches in delving into topics, the white press, i./e. the News Leader and Times and then Times-Dispatched — wouldn’t touch. You never hear about them.

  13. Given its background and founder’s sympathies – should we now also dissolve all USG support for Planned Parenthood?

  14. Richard Smith Avatar
    Richard Smith

    “As for Ryland Hall, Crutcher announced that the name would be retained, while permanent recognition would be given to the people he enslaved ”
    Enslaved,,, really… enslave is when you take a free man and put him in bondage, slavery,,,
    When you own or buy someone you are not enslaving them, you are just an owner, and slave owner….
    Boy do I get tired of the left abusing the English language and all the ignorant out there just accepting it…

    1. The word “enslaved” is a new trope of the Left. The Washington Post uses that word, too. Drives me crazy, too. The only “enslavers” were Africans, who captured other Africans in wars, raids and razzias, herded them to the coast, and sold them to the Europeans. There is ample moral blame to being a slave owner. There is even more to being an “enslaver.” The perversion of the language is a deliberate ploy to maximize the moral blame on early America and its institutions.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Seems like if a person IS a slave – tyen they ARE enslaved and by their owner. No?

        If someone is taken against their will and “enslaved” , then sold to another person who owns them – are they no longer “enslaved”?

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Moot to the slave, there James, but whatever balm soothes your personal history with slavery in Virginia, go for it.

        BTW, didn’t the colonists first try using Native American slaves? So, unless they had those African enslavers come here on an all expenses-paid vacation to ply their trade on the Native Americans too, technically…

        From the OED, “Cause (someone) to lose their freedom of choice or action.”

        Does not the consumer “cause” the production of that which is produced for consumption?

      3. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Moot to the slave, there James, but whatever balm soothes your personal history with slavery in Virginia, go for it.

        BTW, didn’t the colonists first try using Native American slaves? So, unless they had those African enslavers come here on an all expenses-paid vacation to ply their trade on the Native Americans too, technically…

        From the OED, “Cause (someone) to lose their freedom of choice or action.”

        Does not the consumer “cause” the production of that which is produced for consumption?

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