The Legacy of Slavery at Vanderbilt: Our Forgotten Past

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

Robert Yee and Kathryn Fuselier – 

This article was written in collaboration with the Vanderbilt Political Review. For the first essay in this series, click here.

A slew of recent news agencies recently investigated the case of the formerly named Confederate Memorial Hall at Vanderbilt University. The building, now a freshman dormitory, had been named by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1935 to honor the individuals who fought for the South in the Civil War. While the ethical dilemma surrounding the “Confederate” name will continue to be debated, the precedence of naming buildings at Vanderbilt after controversial figures and events is nothing new.


Landon Cabell Garland, 1810-1895 (oil on canvas)

In fact, a number of prominent buildings on Vanderbilt’s campus are indeed linked to the slave-owning past of the South. Built in 1928, the present-day Garland Hall was named in memory of the university’s first chancellor, Landon Cabell Garland (1810-1895). As chancellor from 1875 to 1893, Garland set the university on a path to academic success: he hired many founding faculty members and was himself a prior professor of English literature, rhetoric, and history. However, Garland was also a owner of reportedly up to 60 slaves. In a lecture he gave in 1860 at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, he proclaimed “The negro has, through slavery, been taken up from a condition of grossest barbarity and ignorance, made serviceable to himself and to the world, and elevated and improved socially, morally, intellectually and physically.

Along with his colleague at Alabama, Basil Manly, Garland taught students that slavery was central to the natural order of the world as ordained by God. According to the Independent Monitor, a Tuscaloosa newspaper, in his lectures, Garland allegedly was also fond of justifying his ownership of slaves; he claimed that he did not own them as property, but he instead owned their labor. Garland attempted to create the “West Point of the South” out of the University of Alabama, but failed to acquire a large enough class in 1866. After a brief stint at the University of Mississippi, Garland arrived at the then-infant Vanderbilt in 1875. His portrait still hangs in Kirkland Hall, where the university’s administration remains to this day.

The story is not unique to just one building at Vanderbilt. Closer to the university’s founding, Holland Nimmons McTyeire (1824-1889) was the Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1866. His goal was to create “an institution of learning of the highest order.” Through a series of complicated familial relationships, his wife, Amelia Townsend, was indirectly related to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. It was thus partly for this reason that Vanderbilt entrusted McTyeire with a $1 million gift to found Vanderbilt University.

McTyeire had been born to a well-known, slave-owning family in Barnwell County, South Carolina. In adulthood, McTyeire worked as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama before moving to Nashville in 1872. While he had high hopes for the future waves of students who would enter the hallowed halls of Main Building, Old Central, and other buildings on campus, McTyeire fully supported slavery as part of human nature. His racial biases were outlined in his 1859 book, Duties of Christian Masters, in which he justifies slavery with religious backings. He claimed that slavery was used as God’s punishment and that he, as a follower of the faith, was bound to do all in his power to ensure this continued. His collection of essays outlined his opinions on the proper treatment of slaves. He recommend that one’s servants should be “judiciously worked” but also given a “wholesome rest” in order to be prepared for another day of labor.

McTyeire Hall, now a living learning community, encourages the usage of foreign languages in the dorm and the willingness to learn more about different cultures.


Early View of Kirkland Hall (Vanderbilt University Special Collections)

Even the main administration, now known as Kirkland Hall, has a Confederate-tied past. William Crawford Smith (1837-1899) had been the main architect for the present-day Chancellor office. A Civil War veteran, he fought for the Confederacy in the Twelfth Virginia Infantry during the battles at Manassas, Richmond, and Gettysburg. Beginning in 1874, Smith created his architectural plan while working at C. K. Colley & Co., Architects. Originally called “Main Building,” Kirkland would later become an iconic symbol of Vanderbilt, splashed on the brochures sent to prospective students and adorned on all of the higher-education websites. While the building would later be named after James Hampton Kirkland (1859-1939), the original construction of the building has a slavery-based past.

Today, several buildings on campus have affiliations with individuals tied to slavery. While this research neither promotes nor denounces the recognition of these individuals and their slave-owning pasts, it is important to understand the background of Vanderbilt’s most prominent buildings. Whether or not these buildings should be renamed, as Memorial Hall was in August 2016, will remain a hotly debated issue for years to come.


CDV of Sgt. William Crawford Smith, Flagbearer of the 12th VA Infantry

We can see that several buildings on campus have affiliations with individuals tied to slavery and still bear hallmarks of that time. While this research neither promotes nor denounces the recognition of these individuals and their slave-owning pasts, it does suggest that it is important to understand the background of Vanderbilt’s most prominent buildings. It is only through understanding the past that we can come to terms with how Vanderbilt has or has not changed as an institution, and how it has or has not corrected problematic aspects of its culture. After all, Vanderbilt’s building names are not just about the plaques on the buildings themselves, they are about a longstanding and ever-changing cultural legacy that has brought the University to where it is today. Understanding fosters the open dialogue that has already begun on campus and will no doubt continue for years to come.

#slavery #southernhistory #USHistory #VanderbiltUniversity

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