JMU students challenge university to rename buildings named after Confederate leaders

Published: Jun. 9, 2020 at 5:00 PM EDT
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A collection of James Madison University students, campus organizations, and alumni have shown support for a bill of opinions dedicated to making changes on the university’s campus.

That Bill of Opinions is dedicated to renaming buildings on campus that are currently named after Confederate leaders.

“We felt that it was a very good time to again petition the university after all these years to try to get these names off of the buildings, especially with the history,” Ryan Ritter, a co-author of the bill, said.

Ritter said by the end of the 2020 - 2021 school year, some people want the names of Confederates off-campus buildings.

Ritter said over 40 Student Government Association (SGA) members, more than 25 student organizations, and more than 400 JMU alumni are in support of what he called a long-overdue change.

“It was an appropriate time to do this 30 years ago, let alone now,” Ritter said about changing the names. “But this is something that students have been particularly passionate about for a long time. I interacted with a few alumni who had taken part in student government before who have been trying to do this for decades.”

This Bill of Opinions is asking to change the names of buildings including Ashby, Jackson, and Maury Halls.

They’re named after Turner Ashby, a Confederate cavalry commander killed near Harrisonburg (this past weekend marked the 158th anniversary of his death); General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, tied to the Shenandoah Valley through his historic Valley campaigns; and Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Virginia oceanographer and geologist who served as Chief of Sea Coast, River and Harbor Defenses for the Confederacy.

Ritter said it is important for students to be a part of the potential renaming of the buildings and in the bill, students were asked for their input.

“[Suggestions are] mainly focused on stakeholders in the Harrisonburg community, prominent people of color, women of color in Harrisonburg that aren’t represented in building names on campus,” Ritter said.

Ritter said the bill has received its first 200 signatures and is now temporarily closed for further signatures, as the Student Senate is required to cast an initial vote after the first 200.

Another petition to change the names on buildings has received over 2,000 signatures in two days.

In a statement given to WHSV, JMU said, “The university has been examining our past in order to create a more inclusive future. We are pursuing a number of initiatives in support of that goal, including conducting a campus climate study, increasing educational activities related to our own history, and providing diversity, inclusion, and bias training to all faculty, staff, and students.”

The statement said they continue to think about how to make the campus a better environment for students.

“We are also continuing conversations regarding current building names as we recognize that buildings on our campus named for Confederate leaders serve for many as painful reminders and symbols of systemic racism, and expect to have more information to share on this topic in the coming weeks," the statement said.

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