Alabama Campus Keeps Klan Leader’s Name on Building, Adds First Black Student’s
A too-small step in the right direction.
As the son of a soldier who became a soldier and then an academic gypsy, I have moved around more than most and have a complicated relationship with “home.” Long ago, I settled on the answer to “Where are you from?” being the place where I finished high school. Thus, Alabama is where I’m from even though I didn’t move there until halfway through my freshman year in high school and I’ve mostly lived elsewhere.
I have additional ties to the Yellowhammer State.* After three semesters at West Point, I finished my undergraduate and master’s degrees at Jacksonville State. And, after four years in the Army, my doctorate at The University of Alabama. And I taught at what was then Troy State University with my good friend and co-blogger Steven Taylor (who has risen to Dean of Arts and Sciences) from 1998-2002. Further, my late parents lived there until their deaths in 2010 and 2018.
That’s a long setup for recent developments at my two alma maters and the school I worked at.
The Crimson White, the student newspaper at Alabama, reports that the school is renaming a prominent building after the first Black student admitted to the Capstone. Alas, they’re doing a very good thing in a not very good way.
Graves Hall, which sits at the southwest corner of the Quad, has been renamed Lucy-Graves Hall.
The University of Alabama Board of Trustees voted to add Autherine Lucy Foster’s name to Graves Hall in honor of the 66th anniversary of her enrollment. Lucy was the first African American student to enroll at the University on Feb. 3, 1956.
The College of Education building was originally named after former democrat, two-term Alabama governor, and Ku Klux Klan member Bibb Graves.
Yes, you read that right. The University has corrected the error of having a building named after a former Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan for decades by adding the name of a black woman. A worthy one, indeed, and an important recognition of a stain that still tarnishes the school’s reputation:
Lucy, who began her journey at the University on Feb. 3, 1956, completed three days of classes before riots and protests on campus led to her suspension. Trustee Emeritus Judge John England, Jr., chair of the building names working group, told Lucy’s story before the board.
No other African American students attended the University until Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled in 1963. Their acceptance followed then-Governor George Wallace’s infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.
Lucy opened the door that Wallace sought to symbolically close, England said.
The board considered Lucy for the building name after specific research was done into the history of Graves Hall itself. The resolution presented to the board described Lucy’s experience in Graves Hall, where she hid out from protestors outside the building, as “the site of one of the University of Alabama’s darkest moments.”
Lucy re-enrolled in 1988 after earning a degree in English from Miles College and graduated in 1992 with her master’s degree. She is currently honored by the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower at Malone-Hood Plaza on campus, as well as through her endowed scholarship awarded each year to a Black undergraduate student by the Black Faculty and Staff Association.
As to Graves, well, it’s more complicated than you might imagine:
“On the one hand, Governor Graves is regarded by historians as one of, if not the most, progressive and effective governors in the history of the state of Alabama,” England said. “Some say he did more to directly benefit African American Alabamians than any other governor through his many reforms.”
These reforms included a doubling of education appropriations in his first term, the creation of the Division of Negro Education within Alabama’s Department of Education, the expansion of now-Alabama State University from a two-year to four-year institution and the break up of a longstanding prison labor practice that modeled slavery.
While these were achievements for the state, board members were unable to look past Graves’ conflicting membership in the Klan.
“Unfortunately, that same Governor Graves was associated with the Ku Klux Klan,” England said. “Not just associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but a Grand Cyclops. It’s hard for me to even say those words.”
A Grand Cyclops is a chief officer of a Ku Klux Klan chapter, who appoints others to leadership positions. Graves held this role when he was initially elected as governor.
“We also considered the contributions made and we decided, after much wrestling with it, should this man’s initial and temporary political association with such an organization outweigh the tremendous progress and positive impact achieved? We’re talking about during a time when Alabama was rigidly segregated.”
The working group decided to leave Graves’s name among the two on the building, citing past political motivations as reason for involvement in the Klan. England compared Lucy’s overcoming of racism, segregation and violence, a “sign of the Klan’s defeat,” to Bibbs’ eventual “monumental steps” to resist the Klan, which he was involved with at the start of his career.
“Many historians have concluded that Governor Graves’s association with the KKK was a political maneuver in that it helped Governor Graves along with certain allies such as Hugo Black build a coalition – which included labor unions, prohibitionists, and women’s suffrage advocates – that ultimately helped him secure the 1926 gubernatorial election against the “Big Mules” who dominated state politics in that era,” the board resolution said.
Graves renounced his Klan membership in 1928.
In some ways, this is a Hugo Black or Robert Byrd situation. All three men were Klan members, mostly out of political convenience, but did real good—including for Black people. Because Graves died in 1942, long before the others and decades before Blacks would achieve anything resembling equal citizenship, it’s more challenging to sort out his legacy.
Still, other schools in the state have reckoned with it differently.
Many universities across Alabama bear the name of Graves somewhere on their campus. Some have removed it since the original installment. In 2020 Alabama State University, a historically Black college that he expanded during his governorship, removed Graves’ name from one of their residence halls.
Troy University erased Graves from one of their business college buildings, replacing his name with that of late activist and congressman John Lewis in 2020.
Graves’ name remains on buildings at Auburn University, the University of Montevallo and the University of North Alabama. The University has reaffirmed its commitment to honoring Graves even after extensive review.
In addition, the resolution hinted at future plans for the University of Alabama to “prepare a plaza between McClure Library and Lucy-Graves Hall to memorialize [Foster’s] leadership in overcoming,” what they deemed, “the blight of racial segregation.”
Not mentioned in the piece is Jacksonville State, whose main administrative building when I was on campus bore Graves’ name. A year ago, trustees voted to strip his name from it. Alas, they didn’t rename it after a civil rights icon but after living white alumni who donated a boatload of cash. But the name is gone.
Frankly, I’ve never paid much attention to names. Even though all three campuses I was associated with in Alabama had a Graves Hall, I only vaguely knew that he was a governor a long time in the past. (Troy had buildings named after George and Lurleen Wallace, who I did know.) Ditto Army bases named Benning or Sill or Belvoir. I suspect that’s true of most people. Still, it’s reasonable to think that Black students, faculty, and soldiers who do know see them as not-so-subtle symbols that they’re not fully welcome.
At the same time, as longtime readers know, I’m leery of taking away honors from people who were regarded as heroes and exemplars in their own time because current sensibilities find contemporaneous attitudes they held objectionable. Still, whatever good Bibb Graves did—and it was substantial—it’s hard to justify honoring him on buildings on campuses trying to unburden themselves of the shameful legacy of segregation.
*The state’s more commonly-used nickname is “Heart of Dixie” which, amazingly, still appears on its license plates to this day, albeit in ever-smaller lettering.