by Jonathan Gramling
Now I do realize that the university, in recent years, has named two resident halls in the Lakeshore dorm area DeJope and Vel Phillips, which are also wonderful
things. I have gone to those buildings because I go to many events and interview many people, but I am sure that most university students — not to speak of the
public at-large have ever visited.
The naming of campus buildings and rooms has evolved organically since the UW-Madison was founded in back in 1948. Bascom Hall is named after John
Bascom, a former president of the university. Birge Hall is named after the first dean of the College of Letters and Science. Vilas Hall is named after former Board of
Regents member and U.S. Senator Henry Vilas. More recent buildings are named after people who have contributed to the university. For example, the Fluno Center
was named after Jer Fluno, a 1963 graduate of UW-Madison and made possible through a donation by Fluno and his wife Anne.
Now I know the flow of economic life that makes these things happen and it is wonderful that people donate to UW-Madison and have helped prepare UW-Madison
to continue to be a world-class university. Especially since state government has turned its back on Wisconsin’s public education system, the university has
depended on private dollars to reach its goals.
But unfortunately, institutional and overt racism prevented people of color to contribute in a meaningful way to the creation and growth of UW-Madison. And outside
of some UW Badgers who have made it big in professional sports, there haven’t been many wealthy graduates of color who can donate the millions that it takes to
claim naming rights for buildings and even for rooms within the buildings.
And so we have a university in appearance — just looking at the naming of buildings and rooms — that is white male dominated and sends the message to
students of color that they are “visitors” on someone else’s campus.
There isn’t one thing or another that contributes to a diverse campus that has a positive campus climate for everyone. But I can’t help but feel that this naming stuff
doesn’t help and contributes to the invisibility of people of color on campus.
About 8-10 years ago, The Capital City Hues had nudged itself into a visible newspaper cubicle in the Memorial Union. And then they changed the rules and the
criteria for getting the prime spots was circulation. The Capital City Hues, being of a smaller circulation, was relegated to a side cubicle that wasn’t very visible. If
they had used the criteria of years of publication, The Hues would have been in the front ahead of The Cap Times, which had only recently gone to a weekly free
newspaper. I fussed and the placements were later changed.
We had become invisible on campus and I’m sure that a thousand decisions like this, seemingly innocuous, create an environment that sends a message that
students of color aren’t really a part of the UW-Madison campus.
And so because of the calcified institutionalization of things, people of color are not recognized through these namings. Tradition keeps the inequities in place.
And so I get back to the Frederic March Play Circle named after someone whom I never really knew existed even back in the 1970s when he was still alive. And
perhaps the names of buildings should be changed, maybe even on a rotating basis. Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American playwright to have her plays
produced on Broadway, was a UW-Madison student for a while and was involved with the Union Theater. Why not call it the March-Hansberry Play Circle? Perhaps
that would reflect the different ways that UW-Madison students have contributed to American theater.
Perhaps we can look at other creative ways to work people of color and women who have made contributions to the university and society in the naming of
buildings and rooms on campus. Believe me, naming is important as people pay millions for the naming rights of buildings.
If we are going to have an inclusive and welcoming campus, it must come from the bricks and mortar on up.
And while we are at it, there are a couple of Madison Metropolitan School District buildings whose names could come under some scrutiny. Samuel Gompers was
an exceptional union leader who basically created the AFL, the American Federation of Labor back in the late 1890s. The upside is he did a lot for the average
American worker. The downside is that Gompers was a vehement racist who barred African Americans from joining the union and, in my opinion, set the organized
American labor movement into a detrimental trajectory that would come back and haunt it. Why not look at renaming that building A. Phillip Randolph Elementary
School after the African American labor organizer?
Names — and the messages they send — are very important. They should change as our society evolves, so that our institutions continue to reflect the needs and
aspirations of the people they serve.
Changing Names and Spaces
Back in the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate at UW-Madison, one of my favorite past-times was watching recent-
release, avant-garde and independent films in the Frederic March Play Circle, usually on a Sunday night, trying to extend
the relaxed feeling of the weekend.
I didn’t know who Frederic March was even though March died in 1975, after I stopped going to the Play Circle regularly. I
just enjoyed going to the affordable and informative movies in the theater.
In April 2018, an ad hoc study group, headed up by Dr. Floyd Rose and Stephen Kantrowitz, released their findings on a
study of two university organizations from the 1910s and 1920s that took the name of Ku Klux Klan. In one case, it was an
inter-fraternity organization that apparently had no connection to the national Ku Klux Klan movement. In fact, when the
second group named itself Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and ascribed to the white supremacist values of the national KKK
movement, they changed their name to Tumas.
Now the study group recommended “a history project that identifies and gives voice to those who experienced and
challenged prejudice on campus; and a further commitment to current programs designed to increase diversity and
create a more equitable campus community.”
These things are all well and good and are great recommendations. But this seems to skirt a larger question about the
dearth of buildings, rooms, etc. named after people of color on this campus.