The name of the last all-male dormitory on the University of Texas campus has become an issue more than half a century after the dorm opened because the building is named after William S. Simkins, a Texas lawyer who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1955, UT opened the Simkins Residence Hall in honor of Simkins, who taught at the UT School of Law from 1899 until his death in 1929, according to an online history of the UT residence halls. “The Handbook of Texas Online” says Simkins, a native of South Carolina, served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War and helped start the Ku Klux Klan in Florida following the war. During his tenure on the UT law faculty, Simkins delivered lectures on the Ku Klux Klan to his students. Leslie Blair, associate director of communications for the UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, says the two-story brick residence hall, located near the UT law school, originally housed law and graduate students. Blair says the building’s name became an issue following the publication of an article written by Tom Russell (pictured, left). A UT law school faculty member from 1991 to 2000, Russell says he is now a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and teaches, among other things, American legal history. In March, the Social Science Research Network published Russell’s paper that addressed, in part, the naming of a UT dorm after a professor who had been active in the KKK. In the abstract for his paper, Russell wrote, “During the 1950s, the memory and history of Professor Simkins supported the university’s resistance to integration. As the university faced pressure to admit African-American students, the university’s faculty council voted to name a dormitory after the Klansman and law professor.” According to Russell’s paper, the UT Faculty Council’s committee that recommended naming the dorm for Simkins deliberately omitted any mention of Simkins’ KKK activity from its recommendation. In its recommendation, the committee cited certain biographical information in the then-new “The Handbook of Texas” but did not cite the handbook’s report that soon after the Civil War, Simkins went to Monticello, Fla., where he and his brother organized the KKK, Russell wrote. In an interview, Russell says, “I think it’s inappropriate for the University of Texas administration to continue to honor Professor Simkins by keeping his name on the dormitory.” Russell says Simkins admitted in his own words to violence against freed slaves. Russell provided Texas Lawyera copy of a speech about the KKK that Simkins made in 1914 and that Alcalde, the UT alumni magazine, published in 1916. Simkins’ speech reads in part: “I was staying at the hotel at my town when one morning a lady came in apparently quite frightened and in tears. I asked her what troubled her. She said she had been insulted by a negro. Ascertaining the name of the negro, I seized a barrel stave lying near the hotel door and whipped that darkey down the street and into the freedman’s bureau.” Russell says that while only the UT Board of Regents has authority to rename the dormitory, he thinks William Powers Jr., UT’s president, can remove Simkins’ name from the building and should do so. Powers is the former dean at the UT law school. But Gregory Vincent (pictured, right), UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, says any kind of name change requires the regents’ approval. Vincent says Powers has asked him to form a work group made up of UT faculty, staff, students, alumni and community representatives to study the issue and make a recommendation to Powers by June 30. Vincent says Simkins’ speech about the KKK has to be considered in the context that the KKK was popular in this country at the time. President Woodrow Wilson had the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” originally titled “The Clansman,” shown at the White House, Vincent says. But Vincent says the bigger issue is that a legal procedure was used in naming the dorm after Simkins, referring to the regents’ decision to honor Simkins in that way. “I think we need to be very careful about taking off a name without a thoughtful process,” Vincent says. “We have never renamed a building in our history.” William McDonald, a third-year law student and president of the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society at UT, says, “I think the dorm should be renamed.” McDonald says he thinks the current name is “very, very offensive” and is counterproductive to what the law school wants to achieve as far as diversity. Potential African-American applicants to the law school frequently call him to ask about the school, he says. Although McDonald says he tells them UT law school is committed to diversity, they’ll hear about the dorm named after someone who organized the KKK in Florida. Having Simkins’ name remain on the dorm is the equivalent of “naming a dormitory after Osama bin Laden or Timothy McVeigh,” McDonald says. To McDonald, Simkins is “a domestic terrorist.” McDonald says his organization will present its position on the dorm’s name in a formal memo that will go to Powers and UT law school Dean Lawrence Sager within a week.
-- Mary Alice Robbins