Douglas, Not Douglass

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The panel in charge of naming buildings at Eastern Illinois University has decided that no, it will not rename its Douglas Hall, which now honors famed nineteenth century orator and politician Stephen A. Douglas (right).

According to an article by Rob Stroud in the The Journal Gazette and Times-Courier:

On Tuesday, the committee considered a proposal authored by EIU English faculty member Christopher Hanlon. He, fellow faculty members, and other supporters have lobbied for a change because they say it is not appropriate to name the hall after Douglas, due to his pro-slavery legislative record and racist comments.

The committee also suggested that EIU take steps to emphasize that Douglas Hall, part of a complex with Lincoln Hall, is named as part of a commemoration of the Sept. 18, 1858, Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston, not in tribute to Stephen Douglas as an individual, and to promote this debate history.

Hanlon originally proposed renaming the building, a men’s dormitory, after black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass is not known to have ever visited Charleston, Illinois, the city where EIU is located.

I don’t suppose it matters much but actually Douglas seemed to argue that under the U.S. Constitution individual states had the right to decide whether or not they would have slaves. He was not actually a great defender of slavery itself, though as an opponent of Lincoln (and of, well, emancipation) his popularity has declined considerably since his death in 1861.

While the idea of renaming something when its original reference becomes unpopular is a little odd, it’s not entirely without precedent. In 2005, for instance, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill to officially rename the state’s King County, sort of.

It actually been King Country for its entire history but with the 2005 signature the county was designated to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. It had previously honored the forgettable Alabama politician William Rufus DeVane King, who was vice president of the United States under Franklin Pierce.

Douglas, for what it’s worth, has counties named after him in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin and cities named for him in Georgia and Wyoming. There’s former military garrison named for him in Utah and his birthplace in Brandon, Vermont serves as a museum and visitor center. It also hosts the town’s historical society. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer