Middle Tennessee State University is the latest in a wave of colleges and universities distancing themselves from racial aspects of Southern culture, exemplified by Tuesday night’s recommendation to change the name of Forrest Hall, a campus building named after a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader.
After eight months of deliberation, the university’s Forrest Hall task force met Tuesday to make a recommendation to MTSU’s president, Sidney McPhee, regarding the name. With 12 of the 17 members there, only 10 of whom voted, the task force reached an 8-1-1 decision.
“I believe that the consensus of the committee, with notable opposition, would be to recommend a name change,” task force chair Derek Frisby said.
While Tuesday’s meeting was a milestone in the Forrest Hall debate, it was a small step in the national move toward a new South.
After Dylan Roof, who was photographed numerous times sporting the Confederate flag, shot and killed nine black members of the Charleston AME Church last June, a myriad of Southern colleges and universities began to protest Confederate symbols on their campuses.
MTSU: The Forrest Hall controversy
As of June 27, 10 days after the Charleston shooting, MTSU students already had 600 signatures on an online petition to change the name of the Army ROTC building named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave owner, slave trader and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Though the name had been protested in the past, the Charleston shooting stirred up the most vigorous protest against Forrest Hall in university history.
“I’ve seen this issue brought up many times since I’ve been here,” said MTSU philosophy professor Michael Principe. “But this is by far the most pervasive push against [Forrest Hall] that I’ve seen, which is what it will take to make the university listen.”
The movement, while led predominantly by student activist groups MTSU Talented Tenth and Change the Name of Forrest Hall, had support from many faculty members, alumni and even entire departments.
MTSU’s history, philosophy and political science departments released departmental letters to McPhee recommending the university change the name. In its statement, the MTSU history department called it “morally imperative” that it be changed.
After months of protest, the university formed a committee in October to make a recommendation to McPhee about whether or not the university should change the name.
While MTSU and the Forrest Hall Task Force deliberated in town hall meetings, protests and marches, other schools in the South were making progress.
University of Mississippi: Flagged down
In September 2015, University of Mississippi student Allen Coon ran for a student government position on the platform that he would try to end the flying of the state flag on campus.
“We knew if we were ever going to have a chance to take the symbol down, it had to be now,” Coon said. “At the time, three of the eight public universities in Mississippi were not flying the flag. … With that knowledge, I thought maybe, legally, we could take the flag down.”
Coon worked with the NAACP chapter on campus and other student organizations to draft a resolution for the student government to consider removing the flags.
The week prior to the resolution vote, about 200 activists rallied in support of removing the state flag. To counter the rally, members of the Ku Klux Klan came to campus to support the flag and counteract Coon’s movement.
“I think having those people, people who hate and disparage, on our campus, fighting FOR the flag is what really did it,” Coon said.
The student government voted 33-15-1 to remove the flags from campus less than a month after the movement started.
“I still can’t believe sometimes that the state flag doesn’t fly at Ole Miss,” Coon said. “For a lot of people, this was the last visage of the ‘old South’ in a public institution, so for us to be able to combat that culture is empowering.”
What’s next for Forrest Hall?
Even with the task force’s recommendation, the decision is far from over.
McPhee will have to accept the recommendation and then request a change through the Tennessee Board of Regents. Should the TBR also choose to pass the name change, the Tennessee Historical Commission will have to approve the change with a two-thirds majority.
Frisby predicts that if the name change passes all of the check points, there will still be no change until spring of 2018.
Students who have protested the name change, some for 10 months, are underwhelmed by the progress of the committee.
“It’s been exhausting,” MTSU senior Dalton Winfree said. “It feels good after six months of stalling, but it’s not over yet.”