What’s in a Name? At UMD, a Hurtful History of Segregation

Amidst a flurry of protests across the country – from the University of Pennsylvania to Princeton University and the University of Kentucky – by students calling for the renaming of campus buildings and programs due to racial concerns, the president of the University of Maryland has recommended that the University’s football stadium be renamed. It was research by a Drexel professor that helped to inform that decision.

UMD President Wallace Loh announced to students on Monday his proposal that the stadium, currently named for prominent alumnus and former college leader Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, be renamed Maryland Stadium, as “Byrd’s segregationist legacy does not align with the University’s mission.”

Curley Byrd as president of the University of Maryland
Curley Byrd as president of the University of Maryland

The recommendation came after a group of faculty, staff, students and alumni formed this fall to consider the name and created a report that highlighted Byrd’s role in the development of the University, summarizing some of the most important issues relevant to reassessing his history and legacy, particularly in relationship to the question of integration.

Amy Slaton, PhD, a professor in the Department of History of Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, was excited to find that the report draws on her historical study, Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Through historical case studies, the book pursues the question of, “what do we make of an occupational pattern that perpetually follows the lines of race?” Focusing on engineering programs in three settings—in Maryland, Illinois and Texas, from the 1940s through the 1990s—the book examines efforts to expand black opportunities in engineering as well as obstacles to those reforms.

“I wrote about Byrd in the book because he represented a very telling moment in U.S. race relations to me,” said Slaton. “One in which many Americans wanted to end segregation and were pushing hard for a complete integration in public higher education, but in which many others, primarily but not exclusively in the South, were resisting that change.”

The ‘separate but equal’ black branch of the University that Byrd built at Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the 1950s was deeply under-resourced and neglected, according to Slaton.

“Byrd’s creation of ‘separate but equal’ white and non-white campuses within the UMD system, just as Civil Rights activism really took off in the U.S., struck me as an attempt to accommodate both groups, but through what was actually a very false gesture of racial inclusion,” she said.

Curley Byrd was a major figure in Slaton's 2010 book.
Curley Byrd was a major figure in Slaton’s 2010 book.

According to Slaton, despite the educational and professional advances made by minorities in recent decades, African Americans remain woefully underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, mathematics and engineering. In 2000, African American representation in engineering careers reached only 5.7 percent, while blacks made up around 15 percent of the U.S. population.

“We are certainly no longer a nation that treats segregation as legally or formally acceptable, but I think that many of our ‘diversity’ and ‘equity’ efforts in higher education today share a similar falseness, or at least a distinctly limited level of resource commitment, around inclusion,” Slaton said. “To be clear: I don’t think Byrd is like today’s university leaders in any simple way; but I do think our culture still tolerates great inequalities around race and lets good feeling around inclusion and diversity hide real and difficult questions about resources and opportunities.”

As to whether renaming campus landmarks and traditions can really make a difference, Slaton believes it’s at least a step in the right direction.

“It is urgent that we study the ways in which familiar names, images, representations and celebrations can carry forward parts of our heritage, for better or worse, and that we ask hard questions about those cultural choices, including how names for our shared spaces and institutions were and are chosen. Whose past (or present) is being celebrated and whose denied, when we choose a name for a college building, a public park or bridge? Whose voice is heard in such a decision?”

Even when Byrd was first celebrated in the stadium’s naming, Slaton believes, thoughtful observers would have noted the University’s implied commendation of a person who had made deeply discriminatory leadership decisions.

Amy Slaton, PhD, is a professor in the Department of History of Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Amy Slaton, PhD, is a professor in the Department of History of Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“If we were really setting the stage today for honest, vigorous conversations about race, bigotry and oppression in this country, re-naming decisions about historic stadia or libraries or other building names on campuses, while difficult, could be a productive process, revealing not just ‘flaws’ in famous folks from the past but the many ways in which our country has systemically tolerated inequity.”

Slaton holds a doctorate in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania, and has taught courses in the history of American science, technology and architecture, as well as in U.S. labor history and race relations. She produces the blog STEMequity.com, which is centered on equity in technical education and workforce issues.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Slaton should contact Alex McKechnie at ahm62@drexel.edu or 215.895.2705.