In recent years, students at several colleges and universities across the country have petitioned for the renaming of campus buildings bearing names of racist individuals. Swarthmore itself has never been the subject of such controversies, although larger universities such as Princeton and Yale have.
In early February, Yale University responded to student protests to remove the name of a residence hall honoring John C. Calhoun, the former U.S. vice president who was an avid supporter of slavery. According to BBC, the residential college will be renamed in honor of Grace Hopper, an alumna of the university who is well known for her work in computer science during World War II.
Princeton University was also the subject of recent controversy as it refused to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus iconography in spite of Wilson’s known support of racial segregation, according to The Daily Princetonian.
Christopher Densmore, curator of the Swarthmore Friends Historical Society, summarized the nature of Swarthmore’s own campus building names in light of the controversies at universities like Princeton and Yale.
“We just don’t have anybody like that,” Densmore said.
Densmore explained that many of Swarthmore’s buildings are named after founders of the college or philanthropists and donors, several of whom were Quakers and anti-slavery activists. For instance, Samuel Willets was a member of the Monthly Meeting of Friends of New York and was involved in the anti-slavery movement. He was also the speaker at both the college’s opening ceremony and the first graduation, according to the college’s website. Members of the Clothier family were Hicksite Quakers who supported the college for a long time. Joseph Wharton, also a Hicksite Quaker, served on the board of managers for over thirty-five years and dedicated a sum of his earnings as a businessman to establishing the college. Beardsley was a professor of engineering who helped gather financial supports to establish Swarthmore. Edward Parrish was the first president of the college after its founding.
Vice President of Advancement Karl Clauss stated that there is no specific process for naming buildings.
Although many of the campus’s buildings are named for philanthropists who have contributed large donations to the college, Swarthmore rejected a substantial endowment from Anna T. Jeanes in 1907 because, according to authors Patricia C. O’Donnell and Susanna K. Morikawa of the Swarthmore Borough, it came with the requirement that the college suspend intercollegiate sports.
“The college decided it didn’t want to be dictated by outside money,” said Densmore.
Swarthmore’s campus names have never been the source of major controversy themselves, but a small number belong to individuals with controversial pasts.
Alice Paul, who has a residence hall named in her honor, is a Swarthmore alum and has been championed as a leader in the women’s rights movement of the early 1900s. However, Paul’s views on race have been controversial both at the time of the historic 1913 women’s suffrage parade and in recent years. An article in the Richmond, Virginia newspaper The Times-Dispatch, published Mar. 2, 1913, just one day before the march, documents Paul’s opposition to the participation of black women in the demonstration.
According to the article: “Miss Paul informed some negro suffragists who wish to march that while the National [American Woman Suffrage] Association recognizes equal rights for colored women … the people of the South might take unkindly to their presence in the parade.”
Paul believed the “negro question” threatened her vision for a women’s suffrage movement.
“As far as I can see we must have a white procession, or a negro procession, or no procession at all. [The best solution is to] say nothing whatever about the question, to keep it out of the newspapers, to try to make this a purely Suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems such as racial ones,” wrote Paul, whose words are documented in the 2014 book Alice Paul: Claiming Power by authors J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry.
Paul’s views were not unique in the women’s suffrage movement. Suffragettes such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony also shared the opinion that pro-black activism would undermine the road to the women’s vote. Anthony famously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
Mary Lyon, after whom the Mary Lyon residence hall is named, is believed to have held similarly unfavorable views. Lyon was a pioneer in women’s education and established the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which was the first women’s college and is now known as Mount Holyoke College.
According to Mount Holyoke’s website: “Mary Lyon proved that women were as intellectually capable as men, and that an institution for women offering a college curriculum could survive financially.”
According to associate professor of history Mary Renda at Mount Holyoke College, Lyon was possibly opposed to the abolitionist movement, and also believed in the assimilation of all people into Anglo-Saxon cultural standards.
“[Among Lyon’s comments were] words to encourage full assimilation to Anglo-Saxon New England norms, spoken to a student body that included two Cherokee sisters who attended Mount Holyoke in the 1840s; [and] words of remonstrance heard by the young abolitionist Lucy Stone, then a Seminary student, who placed unauthorized anti-slavery literature in the reading room,” wrote Renda in a 2012 piece in the Alumnae Quarterly of Mount Holyoke College.
In her piece, Renda also claimed that Lyon expressed heavily anti-Catholic sentiments.
“[Lyon held] derogatory views of Irish immigrant servant girls whom the Seminary was able to exclude from its ‘household,’” wrote Renda.
Author Amanda Porterfield of the book Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries explained that Lyon’s lack of exposure to ethnic diversity limited her perceptions of other religious denominations, and that this may have undermined her revolutionary vision.
“[Lyon] probably did not think much about how her intolerance for non-Protestant religions conflicted with her ability to help the women of other cultures. She had little firsthand experience of ethnic diversity herself, and she did not anticipate any of the ways in which the ethnocentrism of her religious vision would undermine its credibility,” Porterfield wrote.
Eugene M. Lang, who graduated from Swarthmore in 1938, has been honored for his philanthropy through the establishment of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility and the Lang Performing Arts Center. In 2012, he donated the largest gift that Swarthmore has received to date, an amount totaling 50 million dollars.
Lang rose to fame when he promised a group of Harlem students that he would cover their college expenses if they graduated high school. President Bill Clinton recounted this story when he awarded Lang the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1996.
“Hardly anyone has ever done more personally to give people who didn’t have it, opportunity, than Eugene Lang … His I Have a Dream Foundation has opened the doors of college for thousands of young people who seize the opportunity he offered. He has helped to make the most of their God-given abilities,” Clinton said.
Even so, Lang’s business practices have come under scrutiny. A 1990 article in the Washington Post affirmed that Lang’s company, Refac Technology Development Corporation, was accused of practicing legal extortion, making millions of dollars through suing manufacturers for alleged patent infringement.
Bernard E. Appel, the president of the Tandy Corporation Radio Shack chain at the time and a target of at least one Refac lawsuit (there were more than a thousand), shared his belief that Lang’s company was guilty of “patent blackmail.”
”They are trying to live off industry by using fear and intimidation. It’s a disgrace of the legal system,” said Appel to the Post.
Vice President of Advancement Karl Clauss believes that Lang’s lifetime of achievements and role as a visionary who sought to make college education accessible make him a representative individual of the Quaker values and emphasis on philanthropy on which the college is built.
“Eugene Lang’s example serves as a testament to the Quaker adage of ‘letting your life speak’ and has inspired countless others to engage in meaningful philanthropy,” Clauss said.
The use of Papazian Hall has been questionable in the past. Before it was used as an academic building, Papazian was a research site occupied by the Bartol Foundation between 1927 and 1977. According to The Swarthmorean, days after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was revealed that the foundation had been involved in atomic research.
After the Bartol Foundation turned over Papazian to the college to be used as an academic building, there was concern that there might be nuclear residue on the former research site. According to a 2013 article in The Phoenix, the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program investigated the site for possible remnants of uranium in December of 1987, and determined that the site was clear.
Overall, the controversies in the histories of Swarthmore’s buildings do not significantly undermine the college’s liberal arts purpose. The individuals who make up Swarthmore’s campus names are not without flaws, but as a whole they represent the college’s vision of innovation, philanthropy, and social justice.