- SXSW 2014
Open letter to President Powers from former UT law professor Tom Russell.
Dear President Powers,
Professor William Stewart Simkins — for whom Simkins Hall Dormitory is named — was a Klan terrorist after the Civil War and an active promoter of the Klan while a UT professor. I recommend you do the right thing and remove his name from the dorm.
In 1999, I met with then-Provost Ekland-Olson’s staff about Simkins Hall. I was told that the dorm would soon be demolished. Vice President Vincent is saying the same thing today.
I am again addressing this issue because of my recent paper titled “Keep the Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls”: The Unseen Power of the Ku Klux Klan and Standardized Testing at The University of Texas, 1899-1999. The quotation in the title — the bit about keeping the “Negroes” away from the white girls —is something a Klansman might say, but the quotation is actually from UT’s registrar nine days after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Please note that I have no problem with Colonel Simkins’s service as a Confederate soldier. Confederate and Union soldiers alike fought with honor. No one should confuse Confederate soldiers with Klansman. Doing so dishonors the soldiers by equating them with criminals.
I see no reason, therefore, to rename the various buildings, professorships, fountains, and whatnot at UT named after Confederate soldiers. I know President Faulkner proposed a plan for the confederate statutes near the Tower. I would hate to see those statues removed — although they should be involved in active lessons about history.
Professor Simkins is different. When the Civil War ended, Colonel Simkins went to Florida and organized the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.
Simkins was a mask-wearing, night-riding Klansman. In his own words: “Most of our service was performed at night and on horseback and not by rail. . . . The immediate effect upon the negro was wonderful, the flitting to and fro of masked horses and faces struck terror to the race, and any belated negro on the road at night who saw us coming never stood on the order of his going.”
Simkins proudly admitted violence against freed slaves. In 1868, a white woman claimed a freed person had “insulted” her.
Simkins “seized a barrel stave lying near the hotel door and whipped that darkey down the street and into the Freedman's Bureau.”
In 1914, Professor Simkins extolled KKK virtues in a speech to UT’s students. The Alcalde — the magazine of Texas Exes then and now — published his pro-Klan speech in the 1916 commencement edition. These were years of white supremacist lynching and terror in Texas and the South. (Alcade editors have decided to defend Simkins by attacking me in their blog.)
Removing the Klansman’s name from the dorm is the right thing to do. However, if you prefer a legalistic loophole before taking action, I show in the paper that when UT’s Faculty Council voted in 1954 to recommend the Regents use the name Simkins, the faculty committee deliberately omitted reference to the Klan. The faculty misrepresented Simkins’s history by whitewashing his past.
What should you do?
I understand that the Regents Rules do not allow you, as President, to give a building a new name. However, nowhere do the Rules say that you cannot strip a name from a building.
You and I were colleagues at the law school, Bill. UT’s law professors have occasionally acted to secure racial justice. In 1961, for example, the Regents threatened Professor Ernest Goldstein’s tenure because he was helping students sue to integrate the dorms. Law school Associate Dean Gus Hodges sent word to the Regents that he and every law professor would resign if the Regents did not back down.
You too should take bold action. Call facilities management and get a wrench, pipecutter, or an oxyacetylene torch; take down the sign that says Simkins yourself. Strip the name from the web site and from maps. Stop honoring Simkins.
After you unname Simkins Hall, you might ask the Faculty Council to right their wrong by coming up with a new name. You could sponsor a renaming contest for the students. Or, just call the building the “Dorm Formerly Known as Simkins.”
All Texans rightly honor their history. But, the finest Texans also do not shy from righting past wrongs. Now is the time to do the right thing.
Professor of Law
University of Denver Sturm College of Law
(former UT Professor of Law and History)