Spurred on by nationwide protests in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans killed by police, and the racial reckoning in their wake, Western Kentucky University is reexamining its history and exploring whether campus buildings named after potential slaveholders should be renamed.
“The campus is having conversations around how we grapple with names on campus. We’ll continue that conversation into the fall semester,” WKU President Timothy Caboni said in a press call with reporters Friday following the university’s third quarterly Board of Regents meeting.
Caboni responded to a question posed by WKU student journalist Gabrielle Bunton. Bunton asked about campus conversations centered on potentially changing the names of WKU’s Potter College of Arts and Letters and its Ogden College of Science and Engineering, in particular.
In response, Caboni said he hoped to offer additional details in his address at this year’s Faculty and Staff Convocation, which will be held virtually Aug. 17 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ll have some announcements, I hope, at Convocation,” Caboni said.
Caboni further acknowledged that the Black Lives Matter movement is “driving a national conversation” and that it will be “part of what our campus dialogue is in the fall.”
The effort involves the work of current WKU Historian David Lee, who is researching the namesakes of Potter College and Ogden College – Pleasant J. Potter and Robert Ogden, respectively.
“They definitely both were slaveholders and came from slave-holding families,” Lee said of the two men.
After originally relocating to Kentucky from Virginia in 1796, Ogden married a wealthy widow and inherited money he used to invest in land, horses and enslaved people. By 1860, Ogden held 38 people as slaves, Lee said.
“He was a pretty significant slave holder,” Lee said.
Later, after his death in 1873, Ogden left money for the establishment of a college in his name. The Ogden College merged with WKU in 1927, and its trustees continue to lease Western Kentucky University land, Lee said.
Born in 1820, Pleasant J. Potter’s father owned enslaved people, and Potter owned others throughout his life, Lee said. Potter later established a bank and became wealthy, and in 1889, a group sought his help with starting a school for young women – the Pleasant J. Potter College for Young Ladies. The private school carried his name after Potter made a significant contribution to its founding, but it’s unclear if the naming was a provision of his gift or done in honor of it, Lee said. The school stood near where Cherry Hall now stands. After it went bankrupt, it was bought out by Western Kentucky State Normal School, the forerunner for WKU.
WKU spokesman Bob Skipper said the university has been examining the matter previously, but added that recent national protests against racism and police brutality and the university’s building efforts to improve diversity and inclusion on campus have given the conversations new urgency.
“We want to make sure that anybody whose name represents the university espouses the ideals of the university, which includes diversity, equity and inclusion,” Skipper said.
The conversation parallels others taking place at higher education institutions, including at the University of Kentucky. There, faculty of UK’s African-American and Africana Studies program recently penned a letter asking President Eli Capilouto to rename Rupp Arena, among other recommendations aimed at addressing racism.
“The Adolph Rupp name has come to stand for racism and exclusion in UK athletics and alienates Black students, fans, and attendees. The rebuilding of the arena and the convention center offer an opportunity to change the name to a far more inclusive one, such as Wildcat Arena. In addition, the University should survey all campus buildings and remove all names of enslavers, Confederate sympathizers (such as William C.P. Breckinridge), and other white supremacists,” the letter states.