Dear Marshall University: Don’t Cash In On Anti-Racism

For nearly a century, Marshall University’s Education Building was named after a Confederate general. After years of campaigning, the building is finally going to be renamed. This victory was due to the work of the anti-colonial, Third Worldist socialist student organization Students for a Democratic Society, the Native American Student Organization, local members of the Organization for the Liberation of Oppressed People, and many more invaluable community and student supporters.

What was an issue only being fought for by the fringe, far-left just a few years ago is now being supported by Republicans on the Board of Governors. Why is this? Money.

After initially voting to keep the name almost a year ago, the Chairman of the Board of Governors said about the Confederate general “There is little question that he was a brave soldier and outstanding leader.” Further, more moderate members of the Board were concerned about possibly losing “major donors” who opposed the name change. After the deaths of multiple Black and Brown people, the injury of many more, one of the largest protest movements in history, and a world-wide conversation, the Board of Governors now says that “Removing the name will allow the board at a future date to honor someone who has made a significant and far-reaching impact on Marshall University through extraordinary public service, service to the university or a major monetary gift.” The University believes this gift can be upwards of $1 million.

Not too long ago, it was possible to say Confederate generals were Great Men of History who made an “oopsie-daisie” about slavery. Again, the Chair of the Board of Governors even said in an official statement, “There is little question that he was a brave soldier and outstanding leader.” Marshall University as an institution is opening the door for a millionaire to make a “major monetary gift” so they can cash in on anti-racism.

While symbolic victories are important, there are much deeper problems at Marshall University. The administration is not considering changing any other building names or the name of the University itself. The University does not want to have the same kind of dialogue about renaming buildings dedicated to Robert C. Byrd and the University’s namesake John Marshall.

Byrd, was a long-time Senator, leader in the Democratic Party, and official in the Ku Klux Klan. He downplayed his segregationist views in order to advance in national politics. Despite his so-called renunciation of racism, he opposed affirmative action and in 2001 said in an interview he was comfortable using the n-word. He also suggested homosexuality would destroy society, which is horrifying that he would be the namesake of a building at the so-called “number one” school for LGBTQ+ Rights.

John Marshall was a slave-owner and throughout the “Marshall Trilogy” of rulings made the Christofascist, settler colonialist “Doctrine of Discovery”  which established “a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians.” Marshall in a unanimous decision in Johnson v McIntosh made it “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” His rulings made it that Native people only had a right of occupancy, which could be taken away by the white settlers. John Marshall believed far-away European kings could decide who controlled the land and today Marshall University upholds Marshall and Byrd’s white supremacist legacy by deciding what is too racist and what racism is acceptable to honor.

Conservatives will bring up Byrd and Marshall as a tactic to point out the hypocrisy as a means to end the conversation. But we wish to bring up this hypocrisy to further the dialogue: the liberal response is to say Marshall and Byrd contributed to persevering the nation while Jenkins sought to divide it. But at their core, Byrd, Marshall, and Jenkins all represent the same white supremacist origin in the structure of settler colonialism. The racism of the heroes of white liberals is not morally superior to the racism of the heroes of the Confederacy. While the University thinks renaming the education building will “honor the ideals of equality and justice embodied by Chief Justice John Marshall.” Removing this name is in fact an important, albeit symbolic, victory in dismantling the first of many bricks in the structure of settler colonialism that John Marshall sought to establish. This is not institutional progress, this is an institutional concession which Marshall seeks to appropriate into an opportunity for financial gain.

In 2018, Students for a Democratic Society demanded renaming the building after someone involved in both education and local Black activism. Josephine Barnett was an educator at Douglas High School (a Black public school) who taught from 1895 to 1935 and at the time of her retirement held the county record for the longest time spent teaching (forty years). She was also a community leader finding her own way to voice opposition to racism, in a petition with other Black community leaders in 1907 in the Huntington Advertiser, asked Marshall College not to allow horrid white supremacist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfolk” Tillman to speak. Josie Barnett was a Black educator and anti-racist activist and would be a much more suitable candidate for opposing racism than a multi-millionaire like Brad D. Smith or Jim Justice.

They also proposed Nellie Francisco, the valedictorian at Douglas High School who was denied entry to Marshall College, studying instead at Bluefield College to become an educator teaching in Huntington and in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Perhaps naming a building after Nell Francisco is a way Marshall as an institution could demonstrate a radical turnaround: from an institution that denied Nell Francisco entry to an institution that applauds her as one of many important Black educators in West Virginia’s history.

Since the renaming was announced, other members of the community have proposed other fitting namesakes such as Ed Starling, who led Marshall’s athletic department after the plane crash tragedy, and Philip Carter, who was an activist against segregation as a student athlete and continues to be a sustained voice for progressive causes as a professor. Carter, Starling, Francisco, and Barnett would all make excellent choices as namesakes for the education building, far better choices than the university’s namesake or the capitalists and politicians who allow it to exist.

And if the powers-that-be decide that doing the bare minimum for correcting racist behaviors is a source of revenue for another Buffalo statue, local activists should demand that the money be used instead as a prelude to reparations. Every dime of any money donated should go directly toward Native land return, as scholarships for students, promoting Black history events, funding new positions for anti-racist professors, and to honor and promote colonized people broadly. Being an institutional ally is not a PR and fundraising opportunity, it is instead an opportunity to take responsibility. Marshall University has recognized when to cash in on anti-racism. It was about donor money before when the decision was “no” and if those who support the most recent Board of Governors’ statement would have it their way, they will make it about donor money now. There is important work ahead.