When a student looks at the Quad, the buildings can tell a story. It shares a similar design to the one curated by Thomas Jefferson in his vision of U. Va’s lawns. Classrooms reside next to dormitories, creating a microcosm of JMU with Wilson Hall as the crown jewel.
Believe it or not, the names of the buildings were purposefully chosen to tell a story, as well. Unfortunately, the narrative the names create has been inappropriate for decades and should be changed. John Wayland, from whom Wayland Hall gets its namesake, was the first history professor at JMU when it was still called the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg.
Margaret Mulrooney, a historian and associate vice provost for university programs, said Wayland created a list of what he considered to be “distinguished men from this part of Virginia, with a significant number from the Confederacy.” The graduated class then voted for names on the list, but Mulrooney said “[the list] had been pre-prepared to achieve a specific outcome.”
Like the positions and physical design of the buildings, Mulrooney described the motivation behind naming the buildings as “creating a narrative behind the history of the Shenandoah Valley and this institution.”
This narrative includes naming several buildings on the JMU campus after confederate soldiers. For example, Ashby Hall, Maury Hall — ironically, where Mulrooney’s office resides — and Jackson Hall, after Stonewall Jackson.
Matthew Fontaine Maury, for whom Maury Hall is named, was a scientist and oceanographer who helped found Virginia Tech. In addition to interests in the sciences, Mulrooney said Maury was also interested in creating a republic for former slaveholders in Mexico, which failed. As if naming a building after a man who essentially wanted to create a second Confederacy wasn’t enough, Turner Ashby, namesake of Ashby Hall, founded the Mountain Rangers, a pro-slavery military group which eventually became the 7th Calvary of Virginia. This led to him working under Stonewall Jackson as a commander and eventually gaining the title of “The Black Knight of the Confederacy.” On top of these two characters, Harrison Hall gets its namesake from Gessner Harrison, who owned up to nine slaves while attending the University of Virginia.
Even JMU’s arguably most beloved building, Wilson Hall, has an unfortunate backstory. Woodrow Wilson— who was born in Staunton, Virginia, and was the 28th President of the United States — was a white supremacist and proud segregationist. He believed segregation was a valuable tool in reducing friction between races.
Many students and alumni may be unaware of the significance behind each building’s namesakes. This ignorance was fostered intentionally. Before the Civil Rights movement, JMU openly promoted the origins of the building names on postcards. When the '60s came along, the promotion stopped, as it became no longer appropriate to “advertise those values,” Mulrooney said. Still, the names remained.
When contemplating the pasts of historical figures, the term “legacy” comes to mind. If JMU truly doesn’t agree with the values expressed in these figures’ legacies, the names should be changed. Although there’s currently no timeline, Mulrooney is convening a committee in reference to the names of the buildings and will be taking input from both faculty and students. It’s one of the many necessary steps to making JMU a welcoming and inclusive university for all.
Allie Boulier is a freshman biology major. Contact her at email@example.com.