A group of Towson University students is demanding that school officials rename two campus buildings that honor prominent Marylanders who owned slaves.
Paca House and Carroll Hall, both student housing buildings, are named for William Paca and Charles Carroll. Both Marylanders signed the Declaration of Independence.
“These [buildings] are named after slave owners. We should get this changed immediately,” said Jordan Smith, a student activist who is black. “Even as a resident, why would I, as a black person, why would I want to live under the name of someone who was a slave owner?”
As of midday Friday, Smith and “Tigers for Justice," a student group he belongs to, had collected more than 3,700 signatures on an online petition demanding the name change.
Sarah Fishkind, a student organizer who is white, said the names of Paca House and Carroll Hall are “against Towson’s values.”
“It’s crazy to think that Towson University named two resident buildings after people who made their wealth off of black bodies,” she said.
University spokesman Sean Welsh said the school had not received any formal requests to rename the buildings.
“We appreciate the concerns raised by this group of students. TU’s Policy on Naming of Facilities and Academic Programs details the process for renaming a building or program,” Welsh said.
Carroll and Paca did both own slaves, according to retired Maryland State Archivist Edward Papenfuse.
Carroll was considered one of the largest slaveholders of his time, Papenfuse said. Born in 1737, Carroll was one of Maryland’s first two U.S. senators, was the only Catholic to sign the declaration and served as president of the Maryland Senate. He died in 1832.
Paca was Maryland’s third governor and later a federal judge. Born in 1740, he was one of the founders of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the Sons of Liberty, a Revolutionary-era secret society that fought against British taxation. It’s estimated that his household had eight to 13 slaves. He died in 1799.
Notably, Carroll advocated for the abolition of slavery, though he never freed his slaves. He introduced a bill in the Maryland Senate that would have gradually abolished slavery, but it did not pass, according to the biography, “Life of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.”
Papenfuse said it was not unusual in Carroll’s time to own slaves while opposing the institution of slavery.
“They deserve to be remembered not for their faults but for their achievements,” Papenfuse said in an email. “Paca, for instance, was one of the fathers of the Bill of Rights, while Carroll was willing to put his whole extensive fortune on the line in opposition to authoritarian rule.”
Fishkind acknowledged the complicated debate about remembering historical figures like Carroll and Paca, but said they should not be honored.
"We shouldn’t celebrate the people who owned slaves,” she said.
A public university in Maryland cannot name or change the name of any of its buildings without going through the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, said Mike Lurie, a spokesman for the university system. A university can formally request a change in writing, and the request would then go before the board for a vote.
Such a vote happened in 2015, when the board voted to change the name of Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland, College Park, because it was named for Harry C. “Curley” Byrd, a former school president who opposed admitting black students. A 1936 court order forced the university to admit African American students.
While there was no public protest of Paca House when it opened in 2008, former Towson Student Government Association President Taylor James said she recalled some opposition in 2016 when Carroll Hall opened.
That discussion did not get the name changed, but it did lead to the creation of a university guideline for naming buildings and academic programs. The policy states that anytime a building or program is going to be named, a committee of students, faculty and staff, including a member nominated by the Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity, must be involved in the process.
“I think the most important part of it is just the committee piece, establishing that a diverse group of university community members need to get together to make decisions,” James said.
The policy says “unethical, immoral and illegal behavior of an individual” and “activities/opinions as they relate to diversity and inclusion” are among the factors that should be considered when naming a building.
It also lays out a procedure in which the Student Government Association, the University Senate or the Towson University Staff Council can send a formal request to rename a program or building to the university’s president.
Smith and Fishkind said they were disappointed their school had named buildings after slaveholders. They said they want to work with the Student Government Association to get the names changed.
“But I don’t want them to change [the names] and not say why,” Fishkind said. “I want [university officials] to hold themselves accountable.”