On Wednesday evening, members of the United Asian American Organizations, Central Student Government and the South Asian Awareness Network hosted a teach-in addressing the life and legacy of the third University of Michigan President James B. Angell.
In addition to serving as president of the University, Angell also served as a U.S ambassador to China. During this time, he helped negotiate the Angell Treaty of 1880 which allowed for the U.S to regulate immigration between the U.S and China. The treaty laid the legal groundwork for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration from China for a period of 10 years.
As part of the teach-in, American Culture professor Ian Shin talked to a group of thirty students about Angell’s legacy and steps the University could take to rectify it.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Mahnoor Imran, Public Policy junior and advocacy chair for UAAO, said she helped organize the event to help students understand and confront Angell’s controversial legacy.
“We felt passionate about coming together to have a conversation about how we can move forward and repair the harm that might have been done and also do so in a way that addresses historical trauma,” Imran said.
Shin said Angell began his career as a professor at Brown University before becoming the president of the University of Vermont following the Civil War.
After his tenure at the University of Vermont, Shin said, Angell was recruited to become the president of the University of Michigan in 1871. Contrary to popular belief, Angell had to be convinced to take the role for over two years before he finally agreed, Shin said.
Shin then discussed Angell’s appointment to the role as the U.S. ambassador to China and his role in negotiating the Angell Treaty. Despite the Angell Treaty allowing for the U.S. to regulate labor immigration from China, Angell believed excluding Chinese immigration was anti-American, according to Shin.
“There’s a pretty good consensus among historians that Angell was a little bit ambivalent about government and he hesitated to accept his appointment, because he really believed that the total exclusion of Chinese immigrants would be fundamentally un-American,” Shin said.
Shin added that while Angell did support some restrictions on Chinese immigration, such as limiting the number of contract laborers, he disagreed with the notion that Chinese laborers were taking white Americans’ jobs.
Though Angell was a moral centrist, his actions still led to people being discriminated against, Shin said. He called on the audience to consider how their own actions are going to be judged by history and to think about the future when taking political stances.
“Is generally supporting (and) voting for the right candidates going to be enough, given the different things that the world and the University is facing?” Shin said. “Or do you want to maybe stick out a slightly more adventurous position that might create some benefits for those around you?”
Shin then explained different ways the University could attempt to address Angell’s legacy. He said the University could contextualize Angell’s legacy by putting a plaque or sign in Angell Hall explaining the harm he caused to Chinese populations, or rename Angell Hall entirely.
Shin compared this potential response to that of the C.C. Little Science Building, which was renamed the North University Building in 2018. C.C. Little was the 6th president of the University who was involved in eugenics research and the tobacco industry.
“I think the C.C. Little building renaming process in 2017 is a really good example of what it would take to name a building,” Shin said. “We did a bunch of public forum discussion groups and studied the issue and issued a report at the end of 2017, and decided to advocate for our agreement, (which was) the call to remove the name of the building.”
Recently, members of the U-M community have also called on the University to remove Bo Schembechler’s name from Schembechler Hall due to claims that he knew of alleged sexual abuse by former athletic doctor Robert Anderson.
In June, the University’s President’s Advisory Committee on University History also recommended removing Fielding H. Yost’s name from the ice arena due to his choice to bench Willis Ward, a Black football player at the University, in 1933. This decision came after Georgia State, the school playing Michigan, refused to play if a Black player was allowed on the field.
CSG President Nithya Arun, a Public Health senior, said CSG is currently in the process of drafting a resolution calling for the removal of Angell’s name from the University.
The final thing Shin said the University could do would be to institute a restorative justice process. Shin said Georgetown University took this approach when they hosted a series of initiatives to acknowledge and reconcile with their history of benefitting from the labor of enslaved Africans. These processes included renaming buildings named after slaveholders and giving preferential admissions consideration to descendants of slaves the University directly harmed.
In an interview with The Daily, Allan VanZandt, Engineering junior and CSG representative, said he came to the event to support his CSG colleagues and to learn more about the legacy of Angell.
“In my opinion, (the way we name) buildings at the University ought to reflect … our cultures,” VanZandt said.
Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.