University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh wants to change the name of the College Park campus' Byrd Stadium, which honors a longtime campus president who opposed integration
Loh said Monday he'll ask the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, which meets Friday, to approve a new name, Maryland Stadium, for the facility.
In a campus-wide email announcing the decision, Loh said having Harry C. "Curley" Byrd's name emblazoned on the stadium "conveys a racial message hidden in plain sight."
He said the stadium might not be the most important building on campus, but it is the most visible, serving as a "front porch" for the institution. To many African-American alumni and students, he said, "the name stands as a vivid and painful reminder that a generation ago, they were unwelcome on this campus."
"This is a difficult and emotion-laden issue," Loh said. "Any outcome will likely please few."
Harry C. "Curley" Byrd was a former football player who taught English and history and served as athletic director before rising to university president, serving from 1935 until 1954. During his tenure, the campus grew significantly, and Byrd is credited with transforming it from "an undistinguished agricultural college to something resembling a modern university."
But he's also known for his opposition to racial integration in the early days of the civil rights movement, setting policies that were ultimately struck down in court. Byrd died in 1970.
The debate over the stadium name has emerged as institutions across the country have wrestled with monuments and tributes to historical figures, deciding whether contemporary policies and positions trump tradition and past accolades.
Byrd's legacy is tied to the era of Baltimore's Parren J. Mitchell, who sued to be admitted to the university's graduate school in 1950. Byrd issued an order to set up classes for him in Baltimore in hopes of thwarting the lawsuit. A court later ordered that Mitchell be granted full status in College Park.
Mitchell earned a master's degree from College Park, taught at Morgan State, worked in politics and won election to Congress in 1970, where he led the Congressional Black Caucus. He died in 2007 at age 85.
Last week, the university renamed the Art-Sociology Building in Mitchell's honor.
Loh previously had not voiced support for a change, and in his letter to regents, he noted that it's important to be wary of "presentism," which he defined as judging historical figures based on current moral standards.
He said if the stadium name is changed, Byrd would be memorialized instead in one of the campus libraries.
Colin Byrd, a senior sociology major who has led a push to rename the stadium — and who is no relation to H.C. "Curley" Byrd — said making a change is the right call.
"It sends a positive signal to black students and all other minorities that we are a university concerned about diversity, equity and inclusion," Byrd said.
He credited a coalition of fellow students and student organizations for pressuring Loh to reconsider the name. Byrd said he led demonstrations at the Mitchell ceremony last week and the dedication of a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass last month to keep the Byrd Stadium issue alive.
Patrick Ronk, a senior government and politics major and president of the Student Government Association, said renaming the stadium would be "a victory for student activism."
The SGA voted 13-2 last spring to support renaming the stadium.
Loh declined a request to be interviewed until after Friday's Board of Regents meeting. Board of Regents Chairman James L. Shea, who is chairman of the Venable law firm, did not respond to a request for comment.
Following pressure from students, Loh set up a work group to evaluate the pros and cons of renaming the stadium. The work group — composed of faculty, administrators and three students — did not come up with a recommendation; rather, the members offered options to Loh.
The group's arguments in favor of stripping Byrd's name from the stadium include that Byrd actively promoted segregation on campus and, when he ran for governor in 1954, promoted a "separate but equal" platform.
Changing the name, the group said, could improve relations with black alumni and aid in fundraising.
But the group said arguments against changing the name included Byrd's importance as a leader in transforming the university, and that his racial views were in line with other leaders of his era.
The work group also said it's important to understand a history of civil rights that includes the role Byrd played, and that a change could be seen as a knee-jerk response.
Other options suggested by the work group included adding another historical figure to the stadium's name and installing signs explaining Byrd's era at the stadium.
Group members noted that their report comes at a time when student activism has been growing on campuses across the nation and as high-profile incidents of racial violence have spurred the Black Lives Matter movement.
The new activism has universities, municipalities and others reconsidering the symbolism of their buildings and statues.
In recent months, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake named a commission to research the city's Confederate monuments, and Baltimore County officials decided to rename Robert E. Lee Park near Towson.
In Annapolis, some have called for the removal of a statue of Roger B. Taney, who authored the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857 that ruled African-Americans were not citizens, from the State House grounds. And Democratic clubs have considered changing events named for presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson because they owned slaves.
Ronk noted that a name like Maryland Stadium wouldn't carry controversial baggage.
"It's pretty generic," he said. "I don't think anyone could find anything wrong with Maryland Stadium."
Colin Byrd said he had hoped the stadium would be renamed for Darryl Hill, who in 1963 became the first black football player for the University of Maryland — and for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Naming the stadium for Hill would honor someone who was on "the right side" of the civil rights movement, he said.
Around campus Monday, several students were unaware of the recommendation — and some were not aware of the controversy surrounding Byrd Stadium's name.
"I'm not really from Maryland, so I don't really know the tradition Byrd has," said Matt Godlewski, a senior biology major from New Jersey.
"I guess no one really thinks about what Byrd really means. When you look deeper into it, I guess it's not really a great role model for us to have our stadium named after," he said. "It makes sense with what [Loh is] trying to do with this university and the diversity we have here. It's tough to really argue with that."
Loh wrote that if the regents approve the stadium name change, he would propose a five-year moratorium on naming buildings after individuals.
He also said the university will hold a symposium on "Maryland Dialogues on Diversity and Community" next year, an effort to move "beyond symbolic changes to institutional improvements."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Daniel Gallen contributed to this article.