Mia Riffle ’24 (She/Hers), News Writer
On April 13, the Special Committee on Acknowledgement and Naming consisting of alumni, faculty, and staff announced that the Board of Trustees had approved their new proposed naming policy. It addresses reforms regarding the naming approval process, the duration of naming, removal of names, renaming, other honorific designations, and portraits.
The section on name removal is applicable in cases where “a name designation would impair the college’s ability to live out its Statement of Purpose (mission statement) fully and faithfully or would violate the college’s foundational values.” For any campus building to be renamed, the Board of Trustees and the college President must approve the process.
The college created the Commission on Race and Slavery in 2017 but waited to release their report in 2020. The report addressed both the students who support changing the name of Chambers and the students who do not want to gloss over the college’s history around slavery and racism. Students fear that removing the name would be to erase the racist past of the college. The Commission supports the changing of the name, but deliberately as part of a broader conversation on campus, with a note that historical markers should be placed around campus so as not to erase its history.
“I don’t like the idea of erasing something we are not proud of so we can pretend it did not happen,” said Michaela Gibbons ‘22. “I am open to the idea of changing the name of the building, but with some public acknowledgement, maybe a plaque, for future generations to see the history of the name.”
Elias Henderson ‘24 learned more about the renaming controversy in his Humanities class where he read the Commission on Race and Slavery report. He supports the renaming of Chambers but believes there are more important issues on campus.
“I think renaming it is a good idea, but it is also distracting from issues that affect black students on campus right now,” Henderson said. “The underfunding of student health centers, removal of Dining Dollars, the underfunding of cultural studies departments, [all of these] are more salient to black and brown students on campus than the name of a building.”
This recent announcement is not the first time Davidson has engaged in conversation about the names of campus buildings.
In 2018, Tian Yi ‘18 and Sarah HD Mellin ‘20 created “Davidson Disorientation,” a virtual tour of Davidson College that provides history of sites on campus and their background on slavery and racism. Their project addressed the historical aspects of Davidson that are absent from college tours while attempting to inform prospective and current students on how slavery was an integral fixture of Davidson’s founding.
As the college community learned and continues to learn more about Davidson’s history, discussions around renaming campus buildings continue to circulate. Chambers Building has dominated this conversation, being one of the center-points of campus life both geographically and academically.
Chambers was constructed in 1858, and was named after Maxwell Chambers. He was born in 1780 in Salisbury, NC. The building was more significant than just a classroom space— it brought Davidson acclaim. Enrollment was in the single digits, but Chambers, a grand building with huge white columns, brought stature to the small college as enrollment doubled shortly after it was built. It was an all-purpose building. Chambers housed dorm rooms, classrooms, laboratories, and commencement hall. It quickly became the center of campus life and the most important building on campus.
Chambers owned enslaved people. He prospered because of the slave trade, used enslaved labor in the cotton industry, and likely made most of his money via slave labor. Most sources directly attribute Chambers’ mass of wealth to slavery, describing how he had family in the business of the slave trade and prominent success in the cotton industry. Additionally, it is thought that Chambers used his brother as a front man in the slave trade, in order to preserve his own reputation.
Using some of his wealth, Chambers donated for the construction of a new building on campus, which would come to be named after him. Some of the bricks used to build Chambers were made on local plantations, and some speculate that labor to construct the building may have been performed by enslaved people.
While working in the Davidson archives as an intern, Gibbons found that Maxwell Chambers had at least 66 enslaved people in his possession and released 18 of them before his death and the rest after his death. Additionally, she found that Chambers was built “almost entirely [with] slave labor.” The original Chambers building burned in 1921, but most of the bricks and the columns were salvaged. Enoch Donaldson, a “college servant”, carried some of the salvaged bricks to Main Street to build the Zion AME Church and are still there today.
Not all of the buildings on campus are named after large donors. The building now housing the Residence Life Office (RLO) and Lula Bells, was originally the laundry room when the College provided an on campus mandatory laundry service. From 1835 to 1920 the College would pay people, mostly Black women living in town, to pick up their laundry, wash it off campus, and then bring it back. Demand for this service grew, so the College created its own laundry service which employed many of the women that had previously done this job off-campus. This service continued and by the 1970s the women were handling around 13,000 to 14,000 pounds of laundry a week. When women were allowed to enroll at Davidson, the laundry service became optional due to the women’s more “complex” clothing that the laundry service was unable to keep up with. “The practice of enslaved people doing laundry for white families comes from slavery, we haven’t come as far as we think we have,” Gibbons said.
Lula Bell Houston was one of the many women who worked in the laundry service. According to Gibbons, “she was a descendent of the enslaved families that were brought to Davidson.” Houston was born in 1923 and worked at Davidson for 57 years. She retired for one day but returned to work the next day at her job as laundry employee and worked there for three more years.
Davidson College was founded in 1837 and lived through the Confederacy in North Carolina. As the college comes to terms with its legacy of slavery and slave labor, questions of what to do about it and how to remember it without having glorifying and literally etching it in stone are still being grappled with, and will be for years to come.
“It does a huge disservice to the community to rename something to pretend that we didn’t do anything wrong. It is important [not only] to acknowledge and reckon with what has been done but also [to] repair it,” Gibbons said.