The University of Wisconsin-Madison must look to its history and its future and re-brand the Memorial Union’s Porter Butts Gallery and Fredric March Play Circle, named for 1920s alumni who belonged to a campus group called the Ku Klux Klan, student Rena Yehuda Newman said Wednesday at a forum on the issue.
“To not remove these names is to condone on ongoing historical wrong and to not properly reckon with the symbolic and tangible impacts of white supremacy on the university today,” Newman said at the gathering hosted by Union Council, a student majority governing group for Memorial Union and Union South.
As a transgender Jewish student who has been threatened with violence on campus, Newman said they appreciates the ordeal that confronts students who are not part of the majority culture.
“Black, brown and native students struggle to feel included and to feel safe on this campus. The history of white supremacy and white institutional oppression continues to contribute to these students not being able to succeed," Newman said.
About 25 people attended Wednesday’s forum, adding the voices of campus employees and community members to the debate. A dozen people offered their opinions, slightly more of them in favor of renaming the spaces, in a series of comments marked by civility.
The Union Council hopes to make a recommendation on renaming of the spaces to Chancellor Rebecca Blank by the end of the year, said Mills Botham, president of the Wisconsin Union. Its work follows the release this spring of a report by a study group appointed by Blank that took no position on the names of the spaces but urged the campus community to confront ongoing racism on campus.
Another forum is scheduled for 5-6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Old Madison East room at Memorial Union.
Members of Butts’ family have lobbied against changing the name of the gallery, pointing to rapid renaming of the campus Ku Klux Klan, an interfraternity honorary society boasting the best and brightest as its members, after the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan began recruiting on campus. They also stress Butts’ many later contributions to the university as the first director of the Memorial Union.
Butts was named to the honorary society by his fraternity in spring 1922, and its name was changed a year later. In 1924, the Daily Cardinal, under Butts’ leadership, published an editorial condemning the national KKK, according to a timeline released by the Wisconsin Union.
Butts’ daughter, Sherrill Randall, said Wednesday that the UW campus KKK group was a social organization only. “It had nothing to do with ideology,” she said. “He did not have racist views,” she said of her father. “We are sure of that. And I want to say to the people who feel so threatened, he was on your side.”
The former Main Gallery at the Memorial Union was renamed for Butts in 1991.
Gary Kriewald, a 1960s UW-Madison alumnus, spoke Wednesday of the importance of the gallery to his campus experience and said he vehemently opposes removing Butts’ name. “I’d like to hear someone defend the proposition that one youthful indiscretion negates a lifetime of positive achievement and devotion to the university,” he said.
Greg Jones, president of the Dane County NAACP, said the image left by the name KKK is hard to get around. “I find it difficult to imagine that lasting image can be reconciled without some serious discussion and changes being made in those spaces now named for those individuals.”
Spring Sherrod, an academic staff member, said renaming the sites is the only rational decision to “honor the university’s commitment to inclusivity.” A petition she posted on Change.org in support of renaming the spaces had attracted 452 signatures from students, alumni, faculty and staff as of Wednesday afternoon.
Faculty associate Jen Plants echoed earlier remarks on the complexity of the situation. “As a white person in the Midwest, I’ve had to reckon with the racist past of my own family while holding all the beautiful things they did,” she said.
In formulating their recommendation, Plants urged members of the council to “think critically about whose voices get amplified and whose voices traditionally are silenced.”