See more of the story

The president of Macalester College is asking his Board of Trustees to remove college founder Edward Duf­field Neill’s name from a campus building following public pressure from student activists and journalists who raised concerns about racist and sexist views the man promoted in the 1800s.

Macalester President Brian Rosenberg announced his decision on Neill Hall, which was renamed after the founder in 2013, at a faculty meeting this week. He said in a statement that his recommendation “is based on the racism reflected in his historical writings, which are extreme even by the standards of his time.”

Rosenberg’s move follows a growing list of battles in communities and on campuses across the country over prominent buildings and landmarks named for historical figures with views on race and gender that offend some modern sensibilities. Advocates of renaming say memorializing figures who held or promoted bigoted views and policies, such as supporting slavery, fuels systemic racism and oppression. Opponents argue the changes are unnecessary and amount to rewriting history.

This week the Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments in a challenge to the state’s decision to remove U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun as the namesake of a popular south Minneapolis lake in favor of the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska. Other landmarks named after the 19th-century politician, who played a crucial role in establishing Fort Snelling, have been targeted across the country because of his support for slavery and American Indian removal.

Earlier this year, a University of Minnesota campus task force joined student activists seeking to rename four campus buildings named for administrators who supported segregation in residence halls in the 1930s and ’40s. The Board of Regents ultimately rejected the idea, with members expressing discomfort with using today’s standards to judge actions taken decades ago.

At Macalester, the move to rename Neill Hall comes after years of complaints from student activists, including members of the American Indian community. The push intensified this fall following a student-led roundtable that included a discussion of renaming as a form of restoring justice for marginalized groups.

“It’s an effort from the college to show they’re allies to indigenous communities and other repressed and minority voices,” said Elika Somani, a student who organized the roundtable.

Somani, a sophomore, said she and other students felt uncomfortable walking into a building “knowing it’s commemorating someone who has caused pain and grief for a large number of people.”

Those efforts gained visibility in late October, when the student publication The Mac Weekly published a special issue called “Colonial Macalester,” highlighting the complicated and, in some cases, racist, legacies of Neill and other leading figures in the institution’s history.

The report cited numerous examples of derogatory comments Neill, an educator, missionary and White House aide, made about American Indians in his published writings.

The piece also recounted Neill’s support for forced assimilation and redistribution of indigenous land to private owners, allegations that he stole from the graves of American Indians in the 1850s, and his opposition to coeducation of women and men.

“Neill was a man of multitudes, certainly,” the newspaper’s editors wrote. “But his sins were legion, and they are unforgivable.”

Neill, who also was a chaplain, was an influential figure in the early days of Minnesota’s statehood.

He founded two churches, helped establish the St. Paul Public Schools system and served as the first chancellor of the University of Minnesota.

In 1864, he was appointed as a private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, later working in the Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant administrations. He was named the first president of Macalester in 1874 and remained with the college as a professor until his death.

Macalester’s Board of Trustees voted to rename the Humanities Building after Neill in 2013 as part of an effort to clear up confusion over which building housed the majority of humanities classes.

The resolution said the change was “in appreciation and recognition of Edward Duffield Neill’s visionary work that laid Macalester College’s foundation and shaped its distinctive mission.”

It added that his “rich legacy is still visible today” on campus and beyond.

Campus officials involved in the 2013 decision told the Weekly they did not recall discussing Neill’s writings or views on American Indians and women.

“It just didn’t come across anybody’s radar at that point,” Kathy Murray, who was acting president at the time, told the paper.

Rosenberg, who declined an interview request, has not yet proposed a new name or revealed the process for picking one.

Students backing the change applauded the swift response from the administration but said the move is just a first step in what they hope will become a broader campuswide discussion on racism and injustices past and present.

“I think it’s really important that we continue this discussion about how the college came to be and not just rename a building and wash our hands of it,” junior Michelle Armstrong-Spielberg said.

“Continuing education and conversation are needed.”

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049