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Recognizing African Americans on public buildings | COMMENTARY

Cole Field House renamed for Darryl Hill and Bill Jones, groundbreaking athletes
Cole Field House renamed for Darryl Hill and Bill Jones, groundbreaking athletes

I never got to watch an actual game at Cole Field House, the iconic arena once home to University of Maryland basketball. Tickets were in high demand, and limited, and I could never secure one when I was a student there. But the building, on the main drag through campus, is still etched prominently in my college memories.

That’s why I was excited when new University President Darryll Pines announced during his inauguration ceremony last month that the facility, now the football team’s new indoor practice space, would be named after the first Black men to integrate basketball and football both at the university and in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

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I had never heard of Darryl Hill, who made history as the first Black football player for the university in 1963, or Billy Jones, who in 1965 broke the color barrier in Terps basketball. I bet I wasn’t the only one. Now, their names will be prominently displayed so others will know who they are as well.

There has been a lot of debate about building names and who is honored on such prominent spaces. All kinds of institutions, including universities, are re-evaluating who is represented on their facilities, with many taking down names of segregationists and others whose histories are offensive and hateful to people of color.

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It’s not often enough that even today you see an African American name on a building. That is why Mr. Pines’ decision is so significant. It sends a message of value and respect for the individuals whose names are displayed for all to see on a facility, and repeatedly referred to by media covering events there. That’s among the reasons companies pay big bucks for naming rights of stadiums, performing arts centers and other venues.

It led me to think about how many times in my own life that I was surrounded by institutions that were offensive in name or, in the case of my high school, mascot.

I attended a middle school in Virginia named Mills E. Godwin, after the state’s former governor who led a movement that used state laws to close schools rather than integrate under federal law. Of course I never learned until years later the history of the man who once wouldn’t have even wanted me, as a Black child, to attend the school named after him. The school’s name was changed in 2016 to George M. Hampton Middle School, after a local African American community leader, but not without some resistance, and it wasn’t a unanimous vote by the local school board. A quick Google search also shows at least one other school in Virginia still named after Godwin.

During my high school years I walked into a building every school day emblazoned with the head of an Indigenous man wearing a traditional headdress, the official mascot of the school. I cringe now when I look at old yearbook photos of students in headdresses at pep rallies. Once again, a history of a whole group went untold and Indigenous people were marginalized to the sides of football helmets and yearbook covers.

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The good thing is there has been progress. My high school, all these years later, has also become enlightened. In a March 15 letter, Principal Matthew Mathison said, thanks to a push led by elected student leaders, the school would undergo “a mascot change to promote a culture of respect and expand understanding for all.” He hopes for a mascot that “fully reflects our values of inclusiveness, respect, and being champions for others,” he said in the letter. If a high school in a once conservative town can change its ways, hopefully many others will eventually, as well.

I think all universities and public school systems should do an evaluation of their building names and remove those that are offensive. What message are we sending to students if we allow them to become educated in facilities honoring those who would not have honored them? That doesn’t mean ignore history, as opponents of statue and name removals like to argue. It simply means some parts of the past should not be placed on a pedestal and instead left in the history books.

Of course, renaming buildings, though more than symbolic, is just a small step in creating an America that looks reflective of the people who live here. I look forward to what else Mr. Pines has in store for my alma mater on the inclusiveness front. He has promised to commit $40 million over the next 10 years to improve the diversity of its faculty and combat racism and improve campus culture. That is the kind of stuff that allows for true change.

Andrea K. McDaniels is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Please send her ideas at amcdaniels@baltsun.com. Her Twitter address is @ankwalker.

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