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Southern Virginia University removes white supremacist’s name from building at school for Latter-day Saints

A student’s post on SVU’s Facebook page prompted an investigation of Robert Lee Durham

Southern Virginia University students walk past the former Durham Hall, which is being renamed after administrators learned of the racist past of the namesake, Robert Lee Durham, earlier this month. SVU is an independent university for Latter-day Saints in Buena Vista, Virginia.
SVU

SALT LAKE CITY — Southern Virginia University swiftly apologized and removed the name on its main academic building this month after administrators learned the man it was named for had engaged in “explicit, public, proactive” advocacy of white supremacy.

The university also declared Juneteenth a new campus holiday, cancelling classes and suspending all other activities on Friday.

SVU inherited Durham Hall and the rest of the Southern Seminary campus in Buena Vista, Virginia, when its board of directors purchased the school in 1996 and turned it into an independent, private university catering to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The academic building was named for Robert Lee Durham when it was completed in 1940 while he was the president of the Southern Seminary.

SVU administrators said they were unaware of Durham’s racist views and actions until after they released a statement condemning racism on June 2 in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

That changed the following day when an SVU alum responded to the statement on the school’s Facebook page.

“While we are at it, would y’all be open to renaming Durham Hall since it was named for a virulent racist who even wrote a novel about how race mixing would destroy America...,” wrote Colin Smith, who now is a student at the American University School of International Service.

SVU administrators moved to strip the name of Robert Lee Durham from the main academic building on campus after an alumnus named Colin Smith said Durham was a racist on the school’s Facebook page.
Facebook

“After investigation, it became clear this was true,” the university said in a statement released on June 11. “We regret and deeply apologize for not being aware of the full history behind the name of this building before now. We are in the process of conducting a full review of the other named buildings that existed prior to 1996, and the history, names, communications and culture of our campus and our school.”

The university’s investigation found that Durham, who lived from 1870-1949, wrote and published “The Call of the South,” a novel with explicit themes of white supremacy. The school said he advocated for those views with members of Congress, regional and state political leaders. Durham also disenfranchised African American voters while serving as a U.S. Commissioner and advocated white supremacy in his autobiography.

SVU published citations for each of the charges against Durham. Several stemmed from a graduate thesis about Durham’s life that found he maintained these views to his death.

University spokesman Chris Pendleton said the lettering with Durham’s name was removed from the red brick building on Monday, June 8, after SVU’s administration and staff confirmed Durham’s history over the two weekdays after Smith’s Facebook post.

SVU’s decision made it part of the national movement to defrock historic figures tied to racism. A couple of days after Durham’s name came down, protesters pulled down the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Virginia’s capital of Richmond.

Courts have blocked Virginia’s governor from removing another statue in Richmond for two weeks now, that of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

At SVU, Pendleton said, “We understood it could be really hurtful and disrespectful to have a building named for a person who actually supported white supremacy.”

SVU announced Thursday that it had canceled classes on Friday for a new Juneteenth holiday in coordination with nearby Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.

“We will observe Juneteenth each year as a university-wide day of reflection while we strive to embrace, teach, and promote inclusion, kindness and tolerance within our community,” according to a letter issued by the office of SVU President Reed Wilcox.

Juneteenth is the most significant black celebration of emancipation in the United States, also known as Freedom Day.

“Both of the decisions we made are about symbols and words and the importance of words and names,” Pendleton said. “The decision to celebrate Freedom Day is about an uplifting symbol. We wanted to remove a symbol we don’t agree with and align ourselves with a symbol we support.”