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University buildings in Virginia once named after Confederates now honour African Americans

Action ‘part of our deliberate effort to ... being a welcoming and inclusive institution,’ says university president

Nick Anderson
Saturday 20 February 2021 12:17 GMT
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James Madison University is named after the fourth president of the United States, who also enslaved people
James Madison University is named after the fourth president of the United States, who also enslaved people (Getty Images)

James Madison University has renamed three prominent buildings for African Americans who made significant contributions to the public institution in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, culminating a process of historical reckoning that began last summer when officials removed the names of Confederate leaders from the halls. 

The buildings, all on the quad of the campus in Harrisonburg, now honour elements of the school’s past that had long been overlooked under a plan the JMU governing board approved Friday.

The action “is part of our deliberate effort to underscore JMU’s commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive institution”, the university’s president, Jonathan Alger, said in a statement.

“These names help us to tell a more complete history of our institution. They highlight and celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of important individuals and groups who have historically been underrepresented in prominent campus namings.

“Collectively they represent faculty, staff, students, alumni and prominent members of our local community.” 

What had been Maury Hall, honouring a Confederate naval officer, is now Gabbin Hall. Its new name honours Joanne Gabbin and Alexander Gabbin, a married couple who are longtime members of the university faculty. Joanne Gabbin is an English professor and Alexander Gabbin an accounting professor. Gabbin Hall houses academic offices and classrooms.

The former Jackson Hall, named for Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, is now Darcus Johnson Hall.

Sheary Darcus Johnson was the first black graduate of what is now JMU, earning a bachelor’s degree in library science from Madison College in 1970 and a master’s degree in elementary education in 1974. Earlier, she also was one of the first black students to enroll in Harrisonburg High School when it began to desegregate. Darcus Johnson Hall is home to justice studies at the university.

The former Ashby Hall, named for a Confederate cavalry officer, is now Harper Allen-Lee Hall. Its new name honours Doris Harper Allen, who worked as a cook for a Madison College president and is a longtime community leader in Harrisonburg, as well as Robert Walker Lee, who provided janitorial and maintenance service at the school in the early 20th century and was believed to be its first black employee. Harper Allen-Lee is a residence hall. 

Founded in 1908 to educate women, the school began awarding degrees to men in the 1920s and took the name of Madison College in 1938. It became JMU in 1977 and now enrolls about 21,000 students. 

The university is named after the fourth US president, one of the nation’s founders and chief architect of the Constitution. James Madison also enslaved people of African descent during his lifetime in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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