Op-Ed: Change Winchell House

Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 3:32pm

With the new $112 million renovation to the West Quad Residence Hall, pretty much everything has changed. Additional study spaces, improved plumbing and better Wi-Fi and computing have brought this residence hall into the 21st century. While many things have been improved, a lot of the same aspects of the 1939 building remain in place, including the original names of every house in the building.

There are nine houses in West Quad, and most of them are pretty meaningful and are not a problem. For example, houses like Michigan House and Chicago House are named after places, Allen House and Rumsey House are named after the founders of Ann Arbor and other houses are named after famous professors.

However, there is one distinct house that is different than the rest. On the north side of West Quad, on the fourth floor lies Winchell House, named after a professor from the late 1800s. Alexander Winchell was a professor of engineering and physics between 1853 and 1872 and of geology between 1878 and 1891. 

Like the namesakes of many other buildings on this campus and across the country, Winchell’s views on race are concerning. Winchell was a part of the “scientific racism” community, which, in short, tried to find biological proof of white supremacy. In 1878, he published a famous paper titled "Proof of Negro Inferiority," which to him was proof that African and African-American people were biologically inferior because of random physical features. In his paper, he performs many types of pseudo-scientific methods to prove this difference. This is truly a sickening read, with Winchell making comparisons between Black people and orangutans, and “proving” through body measurements the idea of their inferiority. This disgusting paper now circulates on white supremacy websites and is cited by some as justification for their racism. Later, in the 1930s when West Quad was built, someone decided to name a house after him, and the name stuck. Seventy-six years went by, and nobody noticed the obvious problem with naming a house after a racist person.

Across the nation, schools like Yale, Georgetown and Princeton have had large-scale student protests over the naming of buildings. Though there have been some successes, many complaints from students have been ignored. In Mississippi, students at the University of Mississippi pushed to change the name of Vardaman Hall, which ironically housed the Institute for Racial Reconciliation. Rather than changing the name, the university decided to put up markers and signs to embrace Vardaman’s past, rather than moving on from it. Last month, The Michigan Daily reported on a talk by Lawrence Ross, which highlighted, among other things, the struggle and failure of students at Clemson University to rename a building that is named after a former slave-holding governor. The issue of building names is at the forefront of campus-climate issues today.

In January, I brought this matter to the University of Michigan’s attention and met with Marilyn De LaRoche, who is the director of University Housing. To the University’s credit, those I have talked to in University Housing have been more than helpful, and have assured me that they are investigating and trying to change the name. Unfortunately, issues like this, and the naming of any University-owned building, fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Regents, a group that may be resistant to progress on this matter. On January 22, Regent Andrea Newman (RAnn Arbor) tweeted that she thought the issue of building names was “an interesting discussion, but also a part of our history.” This tweet was responded to in agreement by Regent Mark Bernstein (DAnn Arbor). Progress is hard to come by on an issue like this; however, progress is needed, and it is unacceptable to name spaces in buildings after people with such flawed views on race. We, as a community, need to move on from our racist past and embrace a more accepting future.

While some may argue that retaining building names on campus is a good way to remember our past as a university, I challenge them to think of the greater impacts of the name above that of simply the words on the door. Having memorials to our racist past is a step in the wrong direction. We must ask the question of whether or not the impact of this racially charged name is more harmful than letting go of the history of his name. In this case, and in many other cases, moving forward from our racist past is more important than remembering the man himself.   

I urge the University community to speak up. The name of Winchell House needs to be changed. We can’t set a tone of inclusivity and acceptance on campus if we have memorials to racists. Many argue that the names of buildings are a way to remember our history, but I’d like to provide another way that they can be beneficial. We as a community can use this as a chance to open up a community-wide conversation about the history of racism. We can and should talk about how much progress we’ve made, but how much further we have to go. Many buildings across this country are named after racist people, and in many cases, we may not even know it. By becoming aware of their history and the history of their namesakes, we can work together to make this campus a more inclusive place.

Kevin Sweitzer can be reached at ksweitz@umich.edu.