November 2019

#ChangetheDamnName: MTSU Student Activism Against Forrest Hall, White Supremacy, and a Reparative Approach to Heritage Preservation

What might a reparative approach to heritage preservation look like? First, a reparative approach to heritage preservation involves taking seriously the collective wounds and violence on which institutions like the university are structured.

by Douglas L. Allen and Jordan P. Brasher

Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), like many universities across the American South, is haunted by a legacy and continuing culture of white supremacy. The Army ROTC building, Forrest Hall, named for Confederate general, KKK Grand Wizard, and white supremacist Nathan Bedford Forrest, continues to be a highly visible mark celebrating white supremacy on MTSU’s campus. Despite decades of activism by students and the removal of other visible traces of Forrest from campus, he continues to have a visible presence on the campus memorial landscape. Recent student activism to remove Forrest’s name from 2016 through 2018 speaks to the multiple scales at which white supremacy and activism operate. It also speaks to the need to engage in memory-work that is reparative rather than simply public relations work that deflects or renders invisible the impacts of oppression.  

The recent struggle over Forrest Hall at MTSU is part of a broader history of student activism to combat Confederate iconography on the campus. As Sarah Calise wrote[1] for The Activist History Review last year, the late 1960s in particular saw a spike in activism to challenge the school’s use of Forrest’s likeness in the campus logo, the use of Confederate flags by fans at the school’s football games, the school’s playing of the “Dixie” fight song, and the student union’s 600-pound bronze plaque of Forrest attached to the wall.

Army ROTC Building, still named for white supremacist and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, on MTSU’s Campus. Photo Credit: Douglas L. Allen

As student activism picked up momentum after 1968, they laid the groundwork for waves of protests and debates for the next five decades. Small victories by 1970 included convincing the band director to find a new fight song and replacing the Forrest soldier mascot with a dog. By the end of the 1970s, the students successfully pressured the university to phase out the use of Forrest in the university logos and merchandise.

It was not until 1989 that the student chapter of the NAACP successfully petitioned the university to remove the enormous bronze plaque of Forrest from the student union building, which was subsequently donated to Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in western Tennessee. By the 1990s, Forrest Hall remained the only physical monument to the Confederacy on campus. Student protests resurged in 2006-2007 to rename Forrest Hall, with Amber Perkins leading a petition to change the name of the building. Though the petition initially led to a resolution by the Student Government Association to remove the name, a counter-petition pressured the SGA to reverse its decision. Perkins and other students tried to continue the fight, but the movement ultimately failed to gain momentum.

Following the Charleston Massacre in 2015, MTSU students renewed their activism to “rid this campus of the vestiges of white supremacy,” a struggle they explicitly connected to past struggles by Black MTSU students and to the broader Black Lives Matter movement. Students skillfully argued that MTSU could not “move forward from its legacy of white supremacy until it removes all of its symbols of white supremacy,”[2] removing and replacing symbols of the Confederacy generally and Forrest specifically. Black MTSU students organized a multi-platform campaign, combining social media hashtag activism with petitions, marches, and demonstrations that pressured MTSU to respond with the formation of the Forrest Hall Task Force.

Student activist, Joshua Crutchfield, leads student protesters in chant after demonstration at Forrest Hall. Courtesy of Forrest Hall Protest Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University.

Student activists endured racial slurs and threats of physical violence as they organized protests at Forrest Hall, President McPhee’s house, and at the task force open forums. Black student leaders of the protests continually placed their movement in context with broader issues on campus and within society. They identified replacing the name Forrest Hall as a beginning, not an end, stating that their concern “is not only with Forrest Hall, but more so with the university’s history of mistreating black students.”[3] They explicitly included broader reparative demands concerning racism on campus, and frequently circled up to participate in a chant inspired by Assata Shakur, which was used to close out #BlackLivesMatter protests.[4]

Charged with debating the issue and making a recommendation to either rename, retain with added context, or take no action, the task force ultimately, after months of forums debating whether to commemorate a white supremacist, recommended the removal of Forrest’s name from the building (though MTSU importantly avoided any real attempt to rename the building by settling on the truly inventive Army ROTC Building). Though the Board of Regents also passed the recommendation for the name change by a voice vote, the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act mandated that final approval be given by the Tennessee Historical Commission, which includes 24 members appointed by the governor and 5 ex-officio members such as the Governor, State Historian, and State Librarian and Archivist. Months after the Forrest Hall Task Force was convened, Republican State Senator Bill Ketron, a member of the Task Force and open critic of the movement to rename Forrest Hall, proposed and passed a 2016 update to the Heritage Protection Act that made it even more difficult to remove monuments or rename buildings by requiring the Tennessee Historical Commission carry a 2/3 vote rather than a simple majority.[5] The commission eventually rejected the renaming attempt and MTSU’s President McPhee decided not to appeal the decision. Instead, MTSU largely dropped the issue and did not even add historical context next to the building, choosing instead to let the issue fade away from the spotlight.

The multiple scales of activism and white supremacy

The commemoration of Forrest at MTSU and the activism of MTSU students opposing this commemoration reveals the multiple scales at which white supremacy and activism operate. Forrest Hall and MTSU’s use of Confederate iconography is but one of many deep histories with and continued celebrations and commemorations of white supremacists at colleges and universities. These commemorations at universities are part of a broader landscape of whiteness and white supremacy and specifically an education landscape that continues to include schools honoring Confederate figures. MTSU and Forrest Hall is also situated within the state of Tennessee, a state that continues to honor Forrest with Nathan Bedford Forrest Day and a bust of Forrest in the capitol building. The state even honors other Confederate figures with special observations such as Robert E. Lee Day and Confederate Decoration Day (held on the birthday of the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis), a practice common across the U.S. South in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

MTSU’s student activism to change the name of Forrest Hall was also set within a broader scalar context. While previous student activism led to the removal Confederate iconography, in general, and associations with Forrest in particular, decades of activism did not rid the campus completely of Forrest’s presence. Embedded within the broader context of Confederate removal following the Charleston Massacre, the 2016 campaign harnessed the energy around Confederate removal into effective local activism on campus. This activism, however, was also set within broader contexts of institutionalized white supremacy. Tennessee bolstered its Heritage Protection Act in 2016 in response to the Confederate removals taking place after Charleston, and the original Heritage Protection Act of 2013 was in response to attempts to remove Confederate monuments in Memphis, TN. So while this broader Confederate removal movement made possible the local pressure necessary to move university officials, it also served as pressure for Tennessee state officials to harden their institutional defenses against movements for removal.   

Student activists march across campus from Student Union Building to Forrest Hall. Courtesy of Forrest Hall Protest Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University.

MTSU students’ activism to remove Forrest Hall demonstrates the importance of connecting local activism to movements and issues at multiple scales. This broadening can provide needed symbolic power to apply pressure locally. However, this case also shows how activism, largely successful at the local level, must face institutional barriers and resistance at other scales of governance. White supremacy on university campuses is not isolated or disconnected from the national, regional, state and local cultures of whiteness and white supremacy. It is produced and maintained not just on but also off the university campus by communities and state actors. It is not enough, then, to simply remove monuments or commemorative names on campus. To dismantle white supremacy on university campuses requires building places of collective belonging through thoughtful reconstruction of the campus landscape, but also by building new visions of society that challenge white supremacy in our communities and institutions beyond the university. This starts with engaging in reparative memory-work. 

Memory-work and the need for a reparative approach to heritage preservation

It is helpful to deploy the idea of “memory-work” to contextualize MTSU’s Forrest Hall renaming controversy and other campus activist movements seeking to make change in the memorial landscape. Memory-work is the broad effort to bring recognition and visibility to long-silenced historical narratives and memories that might challenge dominant ones.[6] Memory-work can involve a range of activities that motivate the creation of social capital and create new forms of and capacities for public memory. This extends beyond renaming, and in MTSU’s case could have included placing a plaque with interpretive text outside Forrest Hall, particularly after the renaming effort was rejected by the Tennessee Historical Commission. While the effectiveness of posting interpretive content outside the building without renaming it is arguably limited,[7] it would have reflected at least a partial if imperfect engagement with memory-work, prompting students to consider the building’s namesake each day as they walked by the plaque to enter the building. Unfortunately, no such work has taken place at MTSU and it remains incomplete at universities across the country.

Rather than engage with memory-work in any meaningful way, many higher education officials and heritage preservation authorities often prefer to conduct “PR-work” that diffuses controversy, gets place names or monuments out of the headlines, and redirects public attention away from memory politics. For example, at the University of North Carolina (UNC), when campus authorities renamed Saunders Hall — originally commemorating a prominent North Carolina Ku Klux Klan leader — they chose not to follow through with student activists’ demands. Rather than rename the building to commemorate African American writer, anthropologist, and activist Zora Neale Hurston, as students demanded, the university chose the name “Carolina Hall” and enacted a moratorium of sixteen years on any campus building name changes.[8] This political maneuver by campus authorities, rather than encouraging meaningful engagement with memory-work, cordoned off the creative capacity for new forms of memory on the campus landscape. Even MTSU’s petition to the Tennessee Historical Commission stopped short of selecting the name of any locally significant African American to replace the Forrest moniker. Carolina Hall and Army ROTC Building as replacement names represent to some campus citizens an unsatisfactory engagement with memory-work that is conservative rather than reparative.

What might a reparative approach to heritage preservation look like? First, a reparative approach to heritage preservation involves taking seriously the collective wounds and violence on which institutions like the university are structured.[9] Second, it involves an interrogation of what ‘heritage’ is and whose heritage counts and is considered worthy of valorizing on the campus landscape. Indeed, for some campus citizens, writing out or removing the name of a white supremacist from a campus building does not fully recover a “Black sense of place” that “brings into focus the ways in which racial violences … shape, but do not wholly define, black worlds.”[10] Removing racially charged symbols is only a start when it comes to engaging in the hard work of memory.[11] The selection of a new name to replace the old one is important for redefining a sense of place and collective identity for all campus citizens. A reparative approach involves taking seriously the role that campus building names can play in not only upholding the white normative order but also in challenging it and contributing to a Black sense of place.[12] 

What is clear is that the struggles against white supremacy on university campuses generally and the struggles over the commemoration of Forrest on MTSU’s campus specifically remain unresolved. While innovative PR-work may have shifted these debates off the front pages for the moment, there is still much memory-work to be done to start to repair the lingering wounds of racial violence and injustice at MTSU and many other educational institutions across the US.

Doug Allen is a Lecturer at Middle Tennessee State University and an urban cultural geographer who studies place-making as a community affirming practice of resisting (racial) injustice. He earned his PhD in geography at Florida State University, studying race and geography within Tallahassee, Florida. Before becoming a geographer, he studied race, history, and memory at Troy University and Columbus State University with a particular interest in the memory of the Lost Cause and Confederate iconography.

Jordan Brasher is a National Security Education Program (NSEP) David L. Boren Fellow, PhD Candidate (ABD) in Geography at the University of Tennessee, and an alumnus of Middle Tennessee State University. He identifies as a cultural-historical geographer interested in the politics of race and memory around commemorating the Confederacy in the U.S. South and in Brazil. His work has appeared in popular outlets such as The Conversation (US), The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), and the Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro, TN) and scholarly outlets like Social & Cultural Geography and Papers in Applied Geography.

Further Reading

[1]Protesting the Confederacy on CampusActivist History Review July 2018.

[2]Talented Tenth Student Activist Coalition Letter to President McPhee,” Talented Tenth Student Activist Coalition, Forrest Hall Protest Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

[3]De-Forrestation Sidelines Special Issue,” pg. 11, Sidelines, Forrest Hall Protest Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

[4]Students Chant Following Forrest Hall Public Forum,” Forrest Hall Protest Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The chant repeats three times the words: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

[5]Heritage Protection Act Passes,” Murfreesboro Post, Forrest Hall Protest Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

[6] See Till, K. 2012. Wounded cities: memory-work and a place-based ethics of care. Political Geography 31: 3-14.

[7] See Brasher, J., D.H. Alderman, and J. Inwood. 2017. Applying critical race and memory studies to university place naming controversies: toward a responsible landscape policy. Papers in Applied Geography 3(3-4): 292-307 for evidence from Murray Hall at Oklahoma State University suggesting that to truly engage memory-work, contextualization projects must be given prominent locations that truly affect the way the public understands and values a building’s namesake.

[8] Trustees Rename Saunders Hall, Freeze Renamings for 16 years. Carolina Alumni Review. URL: https://alumni.unc.edu/news/trustees-vote-to-rename-saunders-hall-put-16-year-freeze-on-renamings/.

[9] See Wilder, C. Ebony and ivy: race, slavery, and the troubled history of America’s universities New York: Bloomsbury for more on the relationship between universities and slavery in the United States.

[10] McKittrick, K. 2011. On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place. Social & Cultural Geography 12(8): 947.

[11] Inwood, J. and D.H. Alderman. 2016. Taking down the flag is just a start: toward the memory-work of racial reconciliation in white supremacist America. Southeastern Geographer 56(1): 9-15.

[12] See Brasher, J., D.H. Alderman and A. Subanthore. 2018. Was Tulsa’s Brady Street really renamed? Racial (in)justice, memory-work and the neoliberal politics of practicality. Social & Cultural Geography Published online first: 1-22.

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