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University of Maryland to honor Parren Mitchell with building dedication

As the University of Maryland, College Park weighs whether to rename its football stadium — which now honors an influential but segregationist early campus president — the school is renaming an academic building for Maryland's first African-American congressman.

The Art-Sociology Building will be renamed in November for the late Parren J. Mitchell, who successfully sued in 1950 to be admitted into the university's graduate sociology program.

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The university also is planning to install an 8-foot-tall statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a remodeled plaza in front of Hornbake Library — "with his fist raised facing Byrd Stadium," university President Wallace D. Loh said Monday.

In a meeting with the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun, Loh suggested that memorials such as the Douglass statue and the Mitchell building can provide a counter to memorials that honor people such as Harry "Curley" Byrd, who held views that are now discounted.

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"I think there's a lot to be learned — at least for students — that there are different points of view, and that is part of our history," Loh said.

Byrd held segregationist views, but Loh pointed out that many people at the time did as well.

Byrd was president of the university from 1935 until 1954, a time when the campus grew significantly. A former football player, he also taught English and history and served as athletic director during his career.

When Mitchell sued to gain admittance to College Park in 1950, Byrd issued an order to set up classes for him in Baltimore in hopes of thwarting the lawsuit. But a court in Baltimore ordered that Mitchell be granted full status in College Park.

"It's fitting and ironic, he had to sue the University of Maryland to open the grad school, now that they're naming the sociology building after him," said Mitchell's great-nephew, Clarence Mitchell IV, a radio host and former state senator.

Another great-nephew, Keiffer Mitchell Jr., said the family wasn't notified of the honor, but is nonetheless proud.

"History has a funny way of playing itself out," he said. "Curley Byrd, as president of the University of Maryland, was for the status quo and not allowing integration. And the black student that integrated has a building on the same campus."

Byrd Stadium is about a half-mile from the building that will be named for Parren Mitchell.

The building's name change was approved by the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents last week.

The university already has an annual memorial lecture in Mitchell's honor, and Loh said that changing the building's name will complement the lecture.

Before the College Park lawsuit, Parren Mitchell had earned a Purple Heart in the Army in World War II and earned his undergraduate degree from what is now Morgan State University.

After earning his master's degree from College Park in 1952, Mitchell went on to teach at Morgan State, work in politics and won election to Congress in 1970. He led the Congressional Black Caucus and served until 1986, when he stepped down for an unsuccessful run to become lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Stephen Sachs.

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Mitchell died in 2007 at age 85.

The decision of whether to strip Byrd's name from the football stadium will rest with Loh and the Board of Regents, which would need to approve such a change.

Loh, who has been president of College Park since November 2010, recently appointed a committee of about 20 people to study the issue, following a student-led push to rename the football stadium. Loh said he purposefully included both proponents and opponents of changing the name, in order to get a diversity of opinions from the committee.

The committee's report is due at the end of the fall semester in December.

"My guess is it's going to be a split committee," Loh said.

No matter what he decides, Loh acknowledged he's bound to receive criticism.

"It's not an easy decision," Loh said. "And no matter how you decide, you're going to be shot at by one side or another."

Loh didn't indicate which way he was leaning, but noted that there can be lessons learned from studying historical figures whose viewpoints don't align with modern thinking.

For example, he pointed to the grounds around the State House in Annapolis, where there are statues of Roger B. Taney, who authored the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857 that ruled that African-Americans were not citizens, as well as Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued for desegregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and later became a Supreme Court justice.

"I think there's enormous symbolism there," he said.

Loh said at least $750,000 has been raised for the Douglass statue as well as stones for the plaza carved with his famous quotes, a project that was inspired in part by former Gov. Martin O'Malley, who saw a "fantastic" Douglass statue in Ireland. The effort for the memorial was led by university professor Ira Berlin.

"It's really, really very impressive," Loh said.

The university's administration building, the Mitchell Building, is named for Parren Mitchell's older brother, Clarence Mitchell Jr., a longtime lobbyist for the NAACP who earned the nickname "101st senator" for his persistent presence on Capitol Hill.

Keiffer Mitchell Jr., a former state delegate who works in Gov. Larry Hogan's administration, said he's flattered two leaders of his family are honored at College Park.

"Who would have thought two brothers from West Baltimore would have buildings named for them on the University of Maryland?" he said.

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