Text of History Department Request on Building Name

Part of the Memory and History at Duke Series

Working within the framework of the university’s “Report of the Commission on Memory and History at Duke University,” the History Department voted unanimously on May 2, 2018 to propose to the Board of Trustees that the name of the building in which we are located be changed from Carr to Gavins. 

The Carr Building’s namesake Julian S. Carr (1845-1924) was one of the most successful businessmen in post-Civil War North Carolina. He was also a benefactor to Trinity College, and after the death of the university’s president in 1882 was one of three businessmen who formed a Committee of Management to ensure the survival of the institution. In 1892, he donated the land to which Trinity College moved, today Duke’s East Campus. 

This, however, would prove to be Carr’s last significant involvement with the College, which would subsequently evolve in new directions. Carr was politically and personally at odds with the Duke family, who became the College’s largest benefactors after its move to Durham. Duke was a Unionist who opposed secession, was drafted into the Confederate Army, and after the war registered as a Republican. Carr, on the other hand, had been an enthusiastic secessionist, fervently embraced and helped to develop the “Lost Cause” ideology, and was a devoted member of the Democratic Party. Carr also found himself increasingly out of step with the academic aspirations and core values that propelled Trinity’s physical relocation and institutional transformation from a nineteenth-century college to a twentieth-century research university, and with the northern educated research faculty hired with the Duke’s money and blessing. As a result, Carr largely focused his role as a benefactor on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and deeply shaped the culture of that institution. 

In 1913, he spoke at the dedication to the “Silent Sam” statue on that campus. During that speech, he proudly described how, just after the end of the Civil War, he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers.” He described this as a “pleasing duty.” Carr’s speech that day was one of many he gave at the dedication of Confederate monuments throughout North Carolina.   

This speech has been re-discovered and widely circulated thanks to the research of a historian Adam Domby, who received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently Professor at the College of Charleston. In a book he is writing called The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, Domby outlines in detail Carr’s deep investment in white supremacist politics and in the promulgation of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Domby addressed these themes at the recent Duke conference on “Slavery, Monuments, and the University” held this past March on our campus. 

As Domby shows, Carr was an activist promoter of white supremacy. He ran for Senate as a Democrat with the campaign slogan “The White Man Must Rule or Die.” He donated large amounts of money to white supremacist political causes. Carr’s chief political legacy was his participation in the defeat of the Fusionist challenge of the 1890s through the disenfranchisement of African-American citizens and the establishment of a one-party state in place when the Federal Government finally interceded with the Voting Rights Act of 1964.  Carr in short was not just prejudiced. He was a key architect of Jim Crow’s segregationist response to the promise of Reconstruction, and therefore amajor force in the violent disenfranchisement of African-Americans in North Carolina.  

The building in which Duke University’s History Department is located was built in 1927. Originally named the Classroom Building, it was renamed in honor of Julian Carr in 1930 in recognition of his earlier institutional role in support of Trinity College. Carr’s selection for commemoration, however, was already problematic at the time, since unlike most others on the list of those approved for commemoration by the Board of Trustees that year, Carr’s influence was exclusively financial and had ended decades earlier before the transformation of the college into Duke University.  

Our monuments and institutional landscapes, we believe, should be a reflection of our values as a community and as an institution. Julian Carr’s life and legacy certainly do not reflect these values today. To the contrary, his values prove to be deeply antithetical to what we today represent as a department in terms of our ethics and our practice of research and pedagogy. The contradiction between Carr’s legacy and the mission of education has been acknowledged in the 2017 removal of Carr’s name by the Durham Public Schools Board of Education from a building at the Durham School of the Arts. 

Carr’s commitment to forms of historical distortion that supported his white supremacist politics make it particularly inappropriate for his name to be honored in the building occupied by the university’s Department of History. For this reason, we propose that once the Carr name is removed the building be renamed after Raymond Gavins, who represents the values we aspire to as a department and who play a pivotal role in making it what it is today. 

In 1970, Gavins became the first African-American to receive a PhD from the University of Virginia. In that year – forty years after the naming of the Carr Building – he became the first African-American in the Duke History Department, and one of a small number of African-American faculty at Duke University. For the next 45 years, he was a Professor in our department, teaching multiple generations of students and creating a vital corpus of historical work that challenged traditional readings of U.S. history and offered readers a richly documented history that focused on African-American voices and struggles. He authored two pioneering books, The Perils and Prospects of South Black Leadership (Duke University Press, 1993) and The Cambridge Guide to African-American History (2016), and published seventy-seven articles, reviews and book chapters. He collaborated with colleagues William H Chafe and Robert Korstad on the Beyond the Veilproject, which carried out and made available in digital form 1350 oral histories of African-Americans from across the South speaking about their experiences of Jim Crow. The three also co-edited Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (The New Press, 2014). Gavins, then, is a venerable part of our history as a department and institution and should be acknowledged and honored as such in this way.  

A beloved instructor, influential mentor and path-breaking historian of the Jim Crow South, Raymond Gavins was the embodiment of the interdependence of excellence as a teacher and as a scholar, for whom research was as central to his classroom instruction as it was to his own scholarly publications and those of the undergraduate and graduate students he mentored. He played a central role, over four decades, in mentoring African-American undergraduate students at Duke University, and in helping to shape the historical field through the training of several generations of doctoral students in our department. Gavin’s forty-six year-connection to Duke was both longer lived than that of Julian Carr, and his contribution more closely aligned with Duke University’s core values. These included the pedagogical embrace of critical inquiry; the importance accorded to faculty research and its role in undergraduate instruction; and the larger mission of what would be the region’s first research university to root out the legacies of slavery, secession and Jim Crow. 

We believe that this change would powerfully fulfill the principles laid out in 2017 by the Commission on Memory and History. First, it centers the educational mission of Duke University. Carr’s political vision and action was based on what is now understood to be a deep distortion of our nation’s history, and represents a prime example of the ways in which such distortion and silencing of history is often part of justifying forms of oppression. At the same time, renaming the building after Gavins celebrates a lifetime of educational work carried out at Duke University, as part of a broader effort to create a more just and equitable society. If the change of the name is approved, as a department we hope to use this as an opportunity for further educational work through a symposium, thematic classes and workshops, and perhaps the creation of a plaque inside the building narrating the history of its renaming, so that both the past name and present name are understood as part of a broader historical process.   

The change of the name takes into account both the past intent and present effect of the representation. Naming the building after Carr may havemade sense in 1930, a time when the political values he represented continued to be powerful and dominant. In 2018, in the wake of decades of intensive and ongoing struggle within our institution and society at large to undo the effects of that political project, the presence of his name is not appropriate, as it quite literally conflicts with the work of education that goes on in the building on a daily basis. Removing his name from the building will not take away a historical recognition of his role, but it will resituate it where it should be, that is in the historical narrative of the institution rather than in what can only be read as a celebration and memorialization of his historical role. In contrast, naming the building after Gavins will recognize and another aspect of Duke’s history as an institution, one which we believe deserves celebration and memorialization for the ways in which it embodies our collective values as a department and institution today.  

The existence of a building named after Carr does not align with Duke’s highest aspirations. In fact, it represents a message of exclusion and hostility to the campus and institution as it now exists, as a place that aspires towards inclusiveness and diversity. In contrast, Gavin’s work and legacy does embody the highest and most noble aspirations of our institution. The renaming of the building would represent a powerful and visible institutional statement about those values. 

The re-naming of the Carr Building is one of the five recommendations on Memorialization put forward in the Activating History for Justice at Duke Report. Our request, therefore, is very much part of a broader and careful conversation being carried out on campus.