Renaming Trotter Hall: A Swarthmore Building’s Namesake and its Implications

Trotter Hall and who it honors is facing controversy and potential changes. On May 1, 2023, President Val Smith sent out an email to the Swarthmore community titled “Facing the Past.” The email addressed an article by The Philadelphia Inquirer that reported on the return of a burial ground in Chester to the Lenape people and the excavation of Lenape gravesites by “two Swarthmore professors.” One was Natural History Professor Spencer Trotter, the namesake of Trotter Hall. The other was student researcher Bird Baldwin (Class of 1900), who later became a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The Lenape dug down 4 feet, 7 inches, and gently laid a man’s 6-foot-1 frame on a stone floor. They customarily pointed his head east, placed some copper objects, glass beads, and a cloth inside, and covered the body with dirt. The body lay undisturbed until 1899, when the Swarthmore professor dug up the skeleton, as well as objects buried alongside it, and moved it all to the college – a practice not uncommon by white people, both professional and amateur,” the article read.

Upon the article’s release, President Smith, along with other members of the college’s administration, began investigating to see if the remains were still at the college in Swarthmore’s collection and, if so, whether it would be possible to return them.

Smith worked with the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the College Erin Brownlee Dell, Assistant Vice President for Communications Alisa Giardinelli, General Counsel Sharmaine LaMar, and Associate Dean of the Faculty for Academic Programs and Research and Associate Professor of Psychology Cat Norris. The college also consulted with outside authorities such as representatives from the National Museum of the American Indian and Temple University’s Anthropology Department Chair Kimberly Williams. This investigation concluded that the human skeletal remains were not on campus.

“Based on this careful work, we can say that there is no indication that the remains unearthed by Trotter and Baldwin remain on campus, and there is no evidence that the College held other Native American human remains,” the statement read.

The statement also prompted the college to launch a new effort to change the name of Trotter Hall and reevaluate the college’s osteology collection. 

“Given historical evidence regarding Trotter’s activities in the excavation of a Native American burial site, the collection and display of human remains at Swarthmore, and his writings focused on racial hierarchy, we will develop a process to reexamine the name of Trotter Hall,” Smith explained. 

According to an article from the Morning Call, the Lenape burial ground that Trotter took the remains from has undergone multiple transgressions throughout history. In addition to Trotter’s theft, the burial ground was plowed to be used as a farm. A journal article published by the American Naturalist in May 1879 explains this: “Mr. Marshall asserts that the plough has been gradually encroaching upon the cemetery, all signs of many of the graves having been entirely obliterated.”

This particular burial ground was known as Indian Known Farm, and was recently donated to the Delaware Nation in March 2022. 

This practice was not uncommon at the time. Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History Christopher Green explained the frequency and pervasiveness of the practice: 

“There have been hundreds of years of the exhumation of native peoples and the indigenous, not just burial grounds, but cultural sites that are under the feet of virtually the entire United States.”

However, progress is slowly being made. 

“It’s only in recent history that it has been something addressed by legal legislation in the United States, namely by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA),” Green explained. 

The other key aspect of this is a different – and more future-focused – question: why and how is Swarthmore changing Trotter Hall’s name? A Swarthmore alum asked this same question in the Swarthmore Fall 2023 Magazine.

“Honestly, I don’t see the benefit or merit of pouring all these resources into dissecting an event that occurred in 1899. Who exactly would be better off for this process? I also don’t see the merit in renaming Trotter Hall, an honor that was bestowed upon Professor Trotter nearly a hundred years ago,” the alum expressed.

Danika Grieser ‘26, co-president of the Swarthmore Indigenous Student Association (SISA) and Lang Opportunity Scholar focusing on Native American education, shared her thoughts on the impact of Trotter’s actions.

“I do think [renaming] has an impact. [Trotter] has such a background of disrespecting Native Americans” she said. 

She also emphasized the importance of bones in Native American cultures. 

“It’s such a complex issue because [to assume that] ‘it’s just bones that were dead anyway’ inherently conflicts with indigenous cultures, beliefs, and knowledge. In many indigenous cultures and tribes, the bones aren’t just a passing item that can be used for research and development,” Grieser said. “It’s sacred. It has cultural weight. It has weight for the future.”

Because of this significance, Grieser thinks that renaming Trotter Hall would be an appropriate action to take. However, she has some worries. 

“I am also very fearful that it just goes from one billionaire to another billionaire. I’d be really interested to see what Swarthmore decides to do,” Grieser said. “The strategic plan they have is a movement towards supporting indigenous students through a Native American indigenous studies course which I and others want to establish here. But I’m doubtful that it goes from being named Trotter Hall to something that actually honors what Swarthmore says they believe in.” 

Almost a year into this renaming, it’s clear that this is still an ongoing process. Erin Brownlee Dell, chief of staff and secretary of the college, explained where the college is now in the renaming. 

“We’ve been working to better understand and confirm how the building came to be named to begin with, which is an important part of the process. This semester, we are focused on developing a set of recommendations around the different factors we’ll need to take into account as we explore the possible renaming of the building, and we will share those with President Smith to consider in the fall,” she said. 

Green expressed some faith in Swarthmore. 

“I think the college is taking a good, strong approach and I think they’re doing better than many other institutions in the area lately.” he clarified. 

Green also emphasized the importance of Swarthmore’s acting ethically in relation to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). “There is not just a legal obligation or NAGPRA. But also there is an ethical one. How can indigenous peoples use more control over their representation, their self-representation?”

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