CHARLESTON – A committee at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston voted unanimously (6-0) this week to recommend that a building named for Stephen A. Douglas be renamed, because of the 19th century politician’s ties to slavery.
EIU’s University Naming Committee surveyed the campus and community about renaming Douglas Hall. The four-story dormitory, and its adjoining twin, Lincoln Hall, were built and named in the 1950’s, to commemorate the Lincoln-Douglas debate held in Charleston in 1858.
Douglas (1813-1861) served in several state offices in Illinois as a Democrat, eventually winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives. The Illinois legislature named Douglas to the U.S. Senate, after a series of memorable debates with his Republican opponent, Abraham Lincoln.
At their April 28 meeting, committee members noted that their surveys and hearings had found support among EIU students, faculty and staff for renaming Douglas Hall. But among townspeople in Charleston and the surrounding area, comments leaned in favor of keeping the building’s present name, to remember when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas came to town to debate.
“We also have heard a bunch of really good arguments and genuine concern over maintaining the memory of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, and that this was such an important point in Charleston history,” said committee member and EIU public relations professor Claudia Jannsen Danyi, during the committee’s April 28 meeting. “And … the way that we’re naming Lincoln Hall and Douglas Hall right now is not actually doing a good job at accomplishing this goal.”
Danyi says that’s because the name of Douglas Hall, on its own, commemorates a politician who owned slaves (through his wife’s inheritance of a Mississippi cotton plantation) and supported the expansion of slavery by allowing newly admitted states to legalize slavery if they chose.
Naming Committee member Don Holly, an anthropology professor at EiU, says he knows the university’s original intent was just to remember the debate, “but unfortunately, as a stand-alone building, it does appear to honor Douglas.”
“This is a problem that no number of informative plaques will be able to correct,” said Holly. “And it’s a problem because Douglas was a racist and a slave-owner. And some good percentage of our student body of color will be compelled to live in a building that bears his name.”
Previous unsuccessful efforts to rename Douglas Hall suggested specific new names for the building, like Frederick Douglass Hall, or Lincoln-Douglas Debate Hall.
But the Naming Committee’s recommendation this week does not suggest a new name for Douglas Hall, but only states that the old name should go. EIU Vice-President for University Advancement, Ken Wetstein, says that was a deliberate choice made by university president David Glassman, who directed the committee to consider the issue.
“It was simply to question the suitability of the Douglas name in light of the university’s values and concerns of our core constituencies,” said Wetstein, who convened the Naming Committee’s discussion of the Douglas Hall naming issue.
Wetstein says the committee’s recommendation was expected to be formally delivered to Glassman by the end of the business day on Friday. After that, it’s not clear when or how the university president will act on the matter.
“There is no prescribed timeline per se,” said Wetstein, “and he’s not indicated to me any particular timeframe or approach that he’s taking.”
Changing or keeping the name of Douglas Hall is ultimately up to the EIU Board of Trustees. Wetstein says Glassman could pass the committee’s recommendation to the trustees, or decide not to.
EIU Acknowledges Procedural Error In Committee Vote
Vice-President Wetstein acknowledged that the manner in which the Naming Committee voted on Douglas Hall did not follow the state Open Meetings Act.
Committee members took a ballot vote on the question, by sending their vote to Wetstein, the meeting convener, through the chat function of the Zoom virtual meeting platform, which only he could see. Reporters for the Journal-Gazette & Times-Courier, and EIU’s student newspaper, the Daily Eastern News, lodged complaints about the method.
“Upon advice of University Counsel, we understand that this vote through the chat function was improper, as it was not available to the public,” said Wetstein in a statement issued Wednesday.
As a remedy, Wetstein released a link to the meeting recording, at https://www.eiu.edu/naming/recordings.php and to a document of the chat function vote at https://www.eiu.edu/media/images/ChatLog.pdf
Jim is a reporter for Illinois Newsroom. Follow him on Twitter @WILLJimMeadows