April 21, 2019 | 55° F

EDITORIAL: Naming structures is not enough

Rutgers community must know and acknowledge its school's past


Something that may still be unknown by many members of the Rutgers community is how closely intertwined their University is with America’s shameful past of slavery and the displacement of Native Americans. Not only was Henry Rutgers himself a slave owner, but so were multiple other significant and well-known University founders, professors and trustees, such as Frederick Frelinghuysen, John Neilson and Philip French. Several founders, including Henry Rutgers, were also active members of the American Colonization Society, which was an organization that advocated for the resettlement of freed slaves in Africa instead of allowing them to live freely in this country alongside white people. 

Rutgers’ Scarlet and Black Project  is aimed at unveiling the largely untold stories of slavery and displacement embedded in our University’s history. It began in 2015 when a group of students concerned about Rutgers’ racial and cultural environment brought their interest in these aspects of our University’s history to the attention of former Chancellor Richard L. Edwards, who then created and appointed the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. Since then, many changes have been implemented. To name some, in 2017 the apartments at The Yard @ College Avenue were renamed the Sojourner Truth Apartments to honor a slave owned by the first president of Rutgers, Jacob Hardenbergh. Additionally, Joyce Kilmer Library was renamed after Rutgers’ first Black graduate, James Dickson Carr.

Some may think of these renamings as, on one hand, attempting to erase Rutgers’ history, or on the other hand attempting to cover it up — as are common points of discussion when it comes to things like taking down confederate statues or flags from public places, which is a seemingly parallel issue. To some, renaming buildings has the potential to become a slippery slope, where anyone who had some hand in a wrongdoing will be erased from history — and since seemingly many of our past leaders took part in some sort of wrongdoing, this renaming can go on ad infinitum. But when it comes to the Scarlet and Black Project, this by no means needs to be the case. 

As Edwards said with regard to the initiative, “to truly praise Rutgers, we must honestly know it; and to do that, we must gain a fuller understanding of it.” Though some parts of our University have been renamed to acknowledge slaves who helped build this school, those whose names have been removed are not gone from our history. And as gut-wrenching as it may be to say, they are as integral to the creation of this University as their slaves were. This is an unfortunate fact about Rutgers that we cannot ignore. Since Rutgers prides itself on the fact that it is one of the most diverse and inclusive universities in the U.S., to ignore these parts of our past would be to undermine those values we hold so deeply. 

Naming future buildings and structures after prominent Black or Native-American figures is a step in the right direction, and for Rutgers it is undoubtedly the right thing to do. But it cannot end there. Edwards was right — in order to proudly praise our University, we must know, understand and come to terms with even the parts of its history that we are most unproud of. For that reason, we suggest that at the very least the University implement some sort of informative requirement with regard to this subject that all students must partake in. For example, an extensive information session at all orientations, an online course like the one for safe alcohol and drug use or even a core requirement aimed at the history of Rutgers. The only way, if any, that we can truly reconcile these parts of our school’s past is to spark an ongoing community conversation about it and why it matters, beyond simply the names of buildings. 


The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 150th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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