ECU trustees postpone renaming Aycock building

After lengthy debate, East Carolina University trustees postponed a decision Thursday on whether to rename a dormitory that now bears the name of Charles B. Aycock, a former governor who espoused white supremacist views.

The university has been examining the issue for months, and a vote had been planned for Thursday. A campus committee and Chancellor Steve Ballard both recommended removal of the Aycock name, saying it was detrimental to the university’s mission to serve a diverse population.

The debate, at times contentious, went on for more than 2-1/2 hours. Despite a motion from the board’s only African-American member, Danny Scott, who wanted to strip the Aycock name, most board members agreed they wanted more time to consider the issue.

“I believe we’re trying to figure out how to not celebrate his name anymore,” said trustee Deborah Davis. “But how do we not lose the history and learn from these lessons of the past, to be able to fulfill the mission of East Carolina University?”

A campus committee that studied the issue for a couple of weeks concluded that Aycock’s reputation had changed and that continued use of his name “dishonors the University’s standards and is contrary to the best interest of the University,” according to the recommendation.

Ballard echoed those sentiments, saying values have changed since 1961, when former leaders, including revered former Chancellor Leo Jenkins, chose to name the dorm for Aycock. “My view is what he represented does not represent ECU in 2014 or moving forward,” Ballard said. “I can’t say it any other way than that.”

He pointed out that naming of the building for Aycock occurred before the Civil Rights Act and before the arrival of the first African-American students. Today, students of color make up 22 percent of ECU’s student body.

Scott said African-American alumni and prospective students are watching the board’s deliberation. “We will be held accountable for the decisions we make here,” Scott said.

The Aycock name has been troubling to others. The state Democratic party in 2011 ditched the name Vance-Aycock for its fall dinner, now calling it the Western Gala. In June, Duke University removed the former governor’s name from a dormitory following pressure from student government. Two other public campuses – UNC Greensboro and UNC-Chapel Hill – also have Aycock buildings and may reconsider. The name is also attached to public schools around North Carolina.

‘Education’ governor

Aycock, who was governor from 1901 to 1905, had a complex and contradictory legacy. Known as the first “education governor,” he established 1,100 schools and nearly 900 libraries around the state. He also worked with the legislature to pass laws that disenfranchised black voters. He was prominent in the Democratic Party’s white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900.

His speeches portray a man who viewed blacks as inferior. The committee’s report quotes an Aycock speech in 1904, promoting more funds for white schools over black schools: “Let us cast away all fear of rivalry with the negro, all apprehension that he shall ever overtake us in the race of life. We are the thoroughbreds and should have no fear of winning the race against a commoner stock.”

Andrew Morehead, a chemistry professor and chairman of the committee, said members learned about Aycock through his own words.

“Most of us thought of him as the education governor,” Morehead said. “I think reading those documents is fairly eye-opening.”

Some trustees weren’t confident in the results of the committee’s review, however.

Kieran Shanahan said he was disturbed by the process. The committee conducted an online survey that was unscientific, he said, and appears to have broken the state’s open meeting laws by not providing notice to the public. There were no minutes of the meetings provided, Shanahan said, and the panel only met for about seven days.

“I’m just very troubled that there’s this emotional rush to do something to make some constituency feel better,” Shanahan said.

Scott said it has taken generations for the African-American community to recover from Jim Crow laws. There is no reason not to remove Aycock’s name.

“The evil that this guy perpetrated is unbelievable,” Scott said. “I can’t imagine a standard that could be higher.”

Aycock’s words

Alumnus Neal Crawford, who served on the review committee, said he grew up a mile from Aycock’s birthplace and attended a high school named for him.

“When I read the man’s own words – we cannot have that dorm named that anymore,” Crawford said. “If I were a young African-American student coming to East Carolina, I would not want to stay in a dorm with a man who believed that and said those things. I think we need to change it. I know it’s hard.”

But some were worried about the slippery slope of renaming a building because of a namesake’s attitudes.

Chairman Robert Brinkley said perception is very important. But he wanted to explore other options for exposing Aycock’s legacy, such as a adding a plaque or a film. The board is expected to vote in February.

“I can’t imagine that anybody, regardless of how he or she votes, is voting in favor of white supremacy and those ‘values’ that are reflected in those speeches,” Brinkley said.

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