Half-century later, UT to reconsider naming of dorm for Klansman

William Stewart Simkins organized KKK in Florida before becoming a law professor in Texas.

The Austin American-Stateman/May 20, 2010

Simkins Residence Hall is the last all-male dormitory at the University of Texas. Tucked into a quiet corner of campus along Waller Creek, it was the first men's dorm with air conditioning.

It is notable for another reason as well: Simkins is named for a UT law professor who was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

William Stewart Simkins, who taught at the School of Law for 30 years until his death in 1929, organized the Klan in Florida after the Civil War along with his brother, Eldred, who later became a member of the UT System Board of Regents.

Now, 55 years after opening the dorm, the university is about to begin a review that could result in the removal of Simkins' name from the building.

The disclosure this week of the review came one day after the American-Statesman asked university administrators about the residence hall's name and several weeks after the release of a scholarly article examining Simkins' record.

The article, posted in an online journal, the Social Science Research Network, and part of a collection to be published by the Cambridge University Press, also details the resistance by UT administrators and regents to integration in the 1950s and 1960s despite two landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings against segregation.

"Simkins engaged in illegal, terrorist behavior during Reconstruction and doesn't merit having a building carrying his name," the article's author, Tom Russell, a former UT law professor who now teaches at the University of Denver, said in an interview. "It's particularly true in view of the fact that he was a law professor."

Gregory Vincent , UT's vice president for diversity and community engagement, said university President William Powers Jr. has charged him with forming a work group of students, faculty members and staff members and with reporting back with recommendations on whether to rename the dorm by the end of June.

"We've been talking about this since the article came up. We want to be sure that we're doing this in a thoughtful way and not in a reactionary way," taking care to avoid "rewriting history" while also ensuring a campus atmosphere that is "inclusive and makes people feel welcome," Vincent said.

The KKK sought to enforce their ideas of white supremacy after the Civil War through intimidation and violence, including murder.

Simkins, who was a Confederate colonel during the war, said in a Thanksgiving Day speech on campus in 1914 and in an article two years later in the Alcalde, the alumni magazine, that he never drew blood as a Klansman. He admitted assaulting a black man, participating in a train robbery and sowing fear in Florida's "black belt" as a masked night rider.

"The immediate effect upon the Negro was wonderful, the flitting to and fro of masked horses and faces struck terror to the race," Simkins wrote.

When a white woman in Florida complained of being insulted by a black man, Simkins wrote, "I seized a barrel stave lying near the hotel door and whipped that darkey down the street."

Simkins was "not ashamed to confess my share" in the train robbery, which involved a consignment of arms and ammunition escorted by federal troops and intended for a black militia in Florida.

And in a common refrain of Klansmen, Simkins said his overarching goal was to protect "our women and children" from the "crime and insolence" of black men.

That view persisted for decades at UT, according to Russell's article and other studies of the university's rocky history of integration.

Days after the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka , which outlawed separate public schools for blacks and whites, UT's registrar, Henry McCown , came up with a plan to exclude many black undergraduates by requiring them to study at black schools first.

"This will keep Negroes out of most classes where there are a large number of (white) girls," McCown wrote.

Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had ordered UT to admit a black student, Heman Sweatt , who had been rejected by the law school solely because of his race. Russell's article recounts how, in the mid-1950s, UT administrators and regents adopted an admissions test that they knew would exclude many blacks from the undergraduate ranks.

Russell said university records show that the faculty named the Simkins dorm, which initially housed law and graduate students, five weeks after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Brown case.

Page Keeton , dean of the law school, suggested the name earlier that year, and a faculty naming committee omitted mention of Simkins' Klan involvement when it brought the matter before the full body of faculty representatives, according to Russell's article.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a former state comptroller and Austin mayor, said her late father could not have known about Simkins' Klan connection.

"My dad was a staunch, staunch advocate for civil rights. He would never have condoned anything that gave any credibility to anything having to do with the KKK. He'd be leading the charge today to change the name," Strayhorn said.

Keeton, who died in 1999 , was dean for 25 years.

In the early 1960s, one of his professors was summoned to appear before the regents, who were angry that he was giving legal advice to students suing to integrate dormitories, according to "Integrating the 40 Acres," a book by Dwonna Goldstone.

Word soon came that if the regents insisted on the professor's appearance, the entire law faculty would resign. The regents backed down. Such a line in the sand could not have been drawn without the dean's backing, Russell said.

Simkins appears to have been recruited to UT to try to salve a legislative investigation that determined the university was too heavy on faculty members who didn't have what lawmakers considered appropriate appreciation for Southern institutions and traditions, said Steven Collins, the UT System's associate vice chancellor for governmental relations.

If so, they got what they wanted in Simkins, who looked a bit like Mark Twain with his unruly white hair and bushy mustache. He was a colorful figure, calling first-year students "J.A.'s," which stood for jackasses. A make-believe creature, the Peregrinus , was invented in his classroom and became the school's mascot and the name of its yearbook, practices that eventually faded away.

Most current UT students know nothing about Simkins.

"It's pretty far back, and I don't think a lot of people will connect with that," said Lee Cao , an electrical engineering student who lives in the dorm. "I'm not sure if they should change the name."

Kristin Thompson , president of the Black Student Alliance, said the university in recent years has sought to be more inclusive, erecting statues of prominent black figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Jordan.

The Simkins name, Thompson said, needs to go: "I think it's offensive."

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