A William Jewell commission says college should rename building after enslaved people who built it
An independent group at William Jewell revealed the college founders’ deep ties to slavery, including the fact that enslaved people helped build Jewell Hall and that the college's namesake Dr. William Jewell did not free all the people he enslaved, contrary to previous accounts.
A commission created to study William Jewell College’s historical ties to slavery recommends renaming Jewell Hall, its oldest building, to honor the enslaved people who built it.
The commission’s recommendations, finalized earlier this month, not only include renaming Jewell Hall, but also updating the college’s history to address slavery, bringing more Black faculty and writers to campus, and establishing scholarships for the descendants of people enslaved by two prominent founders as well as for descendants of Black employees who were not allowed to enroll before 1961.
The commission also recommended changing its name from the Racial Reconciliation Commission to one that honors Katherine “Kitty” Thompson Alexander, a Black woman the college employed as a cook in the late 1800s. College President Elizabeth MacLeod Walls established the group in April 2021.
All of the recommendations stem from the question, “What are we going to do about this history?” said Rodney Smith, commission chair and vice president for access and engagement.
Few of the recommendations are a done deal. As of April 24, the commission had not decided whether to bring all of the proposals to the next Board of Trustees meeting in May or to delay some items that will be “heavier lifts” such as renaming Jewell Hall, Smith said.
Some of the proposals are simple to implement, but many are more complicated and require additional planning and board approval.
The commission’s proposals come after revelations from the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project (SMJP) — an independent group of student, faculty and alumni researchers — that college founders and early benefactors had deep ties to slavery.
The college’s reconciliation commission also issued a report acknowledging ties to slavery in January 2022.
Stakeholders disagree on how to respond to the discoveries. Some expressed concerns that the college’s commission isn’t basing its recommendations on strong enough historical research, and some question whether the proposed action steps are substantive or merely performative.
Smith said he doesn’t expect consensus, especially on items like renaming Jewell Hall.
“We felt like it was the right thing to do,” he said. “We felt like it was an acknowledgment of that history, that we’re owning the fact that not only did enslaved Africans build that building, (but) we should do something to honor them.”
The historical basis for the recommendations
The commission’s recommendations first call for drafting a complete history that addresses the college’s ties to slavery.
SMJP researchers discovered that although the college’s three official histories mention slavery only five times, primary sources reveal college founders’ deep ties to slavery.
The group learned that enslaved people helped build Jewell Hall, founder Alexander Doniphan was staunchly pro-slavery, and — contrary to previous accounts — namesake Dr. William Jewell did not free all the people he enslaved.
The researchers have also found the college’s founders, early trustees and major financial backers owned a combined total of at least 1,000 enslaved people, said Christopher Wilkins, a founding member of the project alongside his students.
Wilkins was an associate professor of history and the history department chair at William Jewell. Before he left the college in December, he raised concerns that the administration’s response to the SMJP research violated his and his students’ academic freedom.
The independent group’s revelations — and the college’s decision to form a separate commission to investigate slavery — have led to conversations about who has the right to determine the truth of the college’s history and what that history should mean for the present.
As The Beacon reported last year, some SMJP members and alumni criticized the college’s report for omitting details about the founders’ pro-slavery connections and overstating their humanitarian actions.
Smith has reiterated that the college’s initial report was a draft that will be revised and expanded. But he said it’s undetermined when that will happen or who will write a complete history.
The SMJP, which plans to publish its own lengthy report as early as December, could write the history, he said. “In some regards, we’re waiting on the report from the SMJP so we could reference their work.”
The reconciliation commission lacks a clear mandate and a plan for how historical inquiry and policy recommendations will work, said Agatha Echenique, a senior history of ideas and philosophy major. He has been following the topic as a former archives student manager and current chief editor of The Hilltop Monitor, the student news site.
Echenique said he’s concerned that the commission’s historical report provides a weak foundation for decision-making.
“It’s not only that they have no procedure to do things, but also that they don’t really understand the nature of what they’re doing at all because they have no historical context,” he said.
Echenique suggested the SMJP could continue its research while the commission focuses on presenting to the Board of Trustees policy recommendations that are based on that research and reflect student input.
That would require a reciprocal relationship between the commission and the SMJP, and “that’s very difficult,” he said. Echenique said he leans toward believing the college should instead disband the commission.
Commemorating the past
Even without a full historical report, the college’s commission has started to recommend short-term actions. It presented recommendations at a campus town hall in November. The commission discussed the recommendations at its February meeting before finalizing them this month.
During the February meeting, the commission opted to identify Katherine Thompson Alexander, the cook in the 1800s, as “Kitty” instead of “Aunt Kitty” in its new name — a move based on faculty feedback to avoid infantilizing its namesake.
The commission has endorsed the Student Senate recommendation to rename the Alexander Doniphan Leadership Award after William G. Summers, the first African American male student, according to the college. It has also renamed the Alexander Doniphan Room in Brown Hall after Audrey Burchett, who the college says was its first African American female student.
The Doniphan name changes are “low-hanging fruit” because they are easy to implement and less controversial, Smith said. But renaming Jewell Hall could be difficult because the building is on the historic registry and there isn’t broad agreement for the name change.
Some students argued that renaming Jewell Hall would be an “erasure.” Smithe said that “174 years from now, no one would know that the building was ever called Jewell Hall and why it was called Jewell Hall, thus sort of rubbing away that history” of the college’s slaveholding founders.
Renaming buildings is performative because names only have the meaning people give them, said Tavarus Pennington, an SMJP member who graduated from William Jewell last year. Those most affected should have the greatest say in whether renaming is important, he said.
“That name still does have meaning that isn’t entirely bad. Students have done amazing research in that building,” Pennington, who was a member of the Student Senate, said of Jewell Hall. “They have learned a lot about Jewell’s history, perhaps, through that building. So there’s value within it, but it’s really a question of who’s using it now and what’s best for them.”
Pennington said he would also like to see Jewell community members use the improved understanding of the college’s history to move from performative steps to action. That “looks like actually getting people aligned around common objectives, common understandings, interests,” he said, “and moving from there, seeing what happens based off of the organic and grassroots organization of individuals who are interested in a problem.”
Repairing and looking to the future
The commission’s recommendations contain two proposals for scholarships meant to address the generational impacts of slavery and discrimination. One would create an annual scholarship for descendants of the college’s Black employees, who were not allowed to enroll before 1961. The other proposal would award scholarships to descendants of the people Jewell and Doniphan enslaved.
The scholarships focus on two founders because of their prominence, Smith said, but could later expand.
A final section of the commission’s recommendations contains suggestions for “creating a better future,” such as establishing partnerships and programs that promote understanding of Black history, slavery and “African American life and culture.” It notes the college has already joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, a group of higher-learning institutions that share best practices on researching their ties to slavery.
Other suggestions in that section include joining the Greater Kansas City Black History Study Group, starting a faculty exchange program with a historically Black college or university, and honoring faculty and staff who create “an equitable and inclusive learning environment.”
Discussing Jewell’s history and recent events — such as a racist incident on campus last semester — conveys what the community values, Smith said.
Having candid conversations and “trying to figure out a way to live better together, I think it sends the message that the other kind of behaviors are not welcomed,” he said. “This is not a place where we discriminate.”
Honesty about Jewell’s history can have a powerful impact on students, Pennington said.
“It’s a way of confronting history in a very tactile sense, right? You can actually go to Jewell Hall, you can actually walk through foundations that were laid by people in bondage,” he said. “There are bricks with the fingerprints of slaves, and that means something.”
This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.