Just days before students return to campus, Vanderbilt University has changed the controversial name of one of its residence halls.
Vanderbilt’s "Confederate Memorial Hall" is now just "Memorial Hall."
After recent years of debate over the building, Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos says the tipping point to remove the word "confederate" was the Charleston massacre, when gunman Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
“It really woke a lot of people up to the power of symbols and the nation’s past,” Chancellor Zeppos told NBC affiliate WSMV.
When a hate-filled website with photos of Roof holding Confederate flags emerged in the investigation, the incident sparked a call to action to remove the flag from the state Capitol, and ignited a national debate.
“Ever since I joined the Vanderbilt community in 1987, the residence hall bearing the inscription Confederate Memorial Hall has been a symbol of exclusion, and a divisive contradiction of our hopes and dreams of being a truly great and inclusive university,” Chancellor Zeppos said in an official letter regarding the resolution.
Naming rights for the building were given to the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1935 for a $50,000 donation. The school tried to change the name to Memorial Hall in 2002 in honor of war veterans, nonetheless, the UDC pushed back to retain the name.
In order to have the name removed from the building, the school had to return the donation in the amount it would be worth at the time of repayment, which today is equivalent to $1.2 million dollars. Because of generous donors, that are choosing to remain anonymous, the school did not have to take any funds from the endowment for this cause.
The chancellor says that students, staff and visitors have been speaking out about the name for decades.
“Written promises that ‘all are created equal,’ and that our Vanderbilt community embraces ‘we the people,’ gain legitimacy and power only when we take actions to ensure inclusion, not exclusion,” Zeppos said in the University statement.
Students and staff expressed their thoughts on the name change. “I commend the chancellor and the Board of Trust on their decision to remove the name of Confederate Memorial Hall,” Student Government President Ariana Fowler said.
“This action demonstrates the administration's attentiveness to student needs and concerns, as well as sets a great precedent for advocating on behalf of those who may feel marginalized on our campus,” she added.
Kevin Leander, faculty head in residence at Memorial Hall, also believes the name was incongruent with the school’s values. “We can be at peace that the outside of the house reflects the soul on the inside of the house that we’ve been practicing for a long time,” Leander told WSMV.
Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni President Damien Charley, who speaks with the chancellor on occasion — especially in light of recent nationwide events — said he is happy that the school removed the name that was there for several years.
"Thinking of the history of the south and the history it conjures up, especially with African-American students, it's one of those things that will allow us to have more comfortable spaces to exist in," Charley told NBCBLK.
In addition to taking the name off the building, Vanderbilt says they will continue to make changes in the area of racial reconciliation and change. “In the hope that our action today will become a lasting moment of learning, we will establish a major annual conference on race, reconciliation, and reunion,” said Chancellor Zeppos.
Reverend James Lawson — a Freedom Rider, Civil Rights Leader and now Vanderbilt Professor — along with Professor Dickerson are slated to lead the efforts in planning the conference with the Vanderbilt community.