With New Stadium Name, Maryland Tries to Reconcile Its Segregationist Past

The University of Maryland recently removed the name of segregationist and former school president Curley Byrd from its football stadium, reflecting an ongoing national debate over the place of historic symbols of racism in the U.S. today.

by Alex Kirshner
Mar 3 2016, 3:15pm

Photo by Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

For decades, Harry Clifton "Curley" Byrd was perhaps the most respected University of Maryland president in school history—a man who, from 1935 to 1954, oversaw much of the institution's growth from a small agricultural college to a major state university spread across 1,250 acres in College Park.

But Byrd, who once coached the school's football team and died in 1970, was also an ardent proponent of segregation at UMD, and for the past year the very same campus has had to grapple with this part of his legacy, and the football stadium that bore his name.

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Maryland is part of a larger national movement in which students and activists are demanding that schools acknowledge their racially fraught pasts. At Princeton University, for example, campus officials are weighing demands from a black student group to strip former school and United States President Woodrow Wilson's name from a residential college and the public affairs school because of his segregationist stance.

Similarly, Yale University is considering renaming its residential Calhoun College, named for former Senator and Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, a vocal slavery supporter.

In College Park, the focus turned toward Byrd Stadium, which had served as home to Maryland's football team since its construction in 1950. Following a year of sometimes-quiet advocacy and a three-month university review process, system regents voted last December to rename the facility Maryland Stadium.

On campus, questions still abound over whether the change was the right decision.

"I'm very passionate about the university and I'm very passionate about its history," said Anne Turkos, who has worked at Maryland as an archivist for 31 years. "But am I going to say, 'Bad things happened here, and we're not gonna talk about that?' I'm not gonna do that."

The way things were. YouTube

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when whispers about wiping Byrd's name off the stadium turned into a full-throated roar, but one sticks out: In the spring of 2015, a fraternity email, written the year before and full of racist and sexist slurs, surfaced on social media.

Outraged students attended a subsequent town hall with Wallace Loh, the university's current president. For many, the incident was a symptom of larger issues on campus, and it served as a jumping-off point for broader discussion about the treatment of black students, who make up about 13 percent of Maryland's 27,000-plus undergraduate student body.

At the town hall, a Maryland student named Colin Byrd (no relation to Curley) took the microphone and pushed Loh aggressively: Why wouldn't he support changing Byrd Stadium's name?

"Exactly what would stop you?" he asked.

Colin noted that Curley Byrd fought to keep Thurgood Marshall and others away from Maryland's law school and had values that were "a contradiction to the university's supposed commitment to its core values of respect for human dignity, diversity, and inclusiveness."

Loh said that Byrd's presidency took place during a time of widespread segregation in both Maryland and the nation as a whole, and ended months before the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the system of "separate but equal" public schools.

"The University of Maryland was segregated," Loh said. "All the other institutions were segregated. I'm not saying it's right. And so you're raising the question. Yes, he was a racist, he was a segregationist. Should we change his name? It's a valid question."

Loh's statements about the new stadium name drew jeers from the crowd. It was perhaps the least friendly reception in his four years at Maryland, and he was unusually shaken up after the event, according to people who worked and spoke with him afterward.

Maryland's student government association approved a resolution to change the stadium name a week later, as the town hall with Loh generated an uptick in media coverage and on-campus discussion.

"Why is one of our most, if not the most public building on campus named for someone who didn't want black students to enroll at the university?" asked Patrick Ronk, the student body president.

University of Maryland president Wallace Loh, and his apropos bow tie. YouTube

Last September, Loh announced the formation of a Byrd Stadium Naming Work Group to research the pros and cons of making a switch. The group was, in essence, to be an intermediary's intermediary. It would present facts to Loh, who would make recommendations to the university system regents, who would make the final decision.

"I entered the process with not a clear opinion on one side or the other," said Bonnie Thornton Dill, the university arts and humanities dean who chaired the committee. "I tried to run the process in a way that we could look at both sides of the issue and hear from both sides."

Thornton Dill said she aimed to give Loh "a balanced view" of the ramifications of his decision, one way or the other.

Meanwhile, Kumea Shorter-Gooden, the university's chief diversity officer and another committee member, spoke up in favor of a change.

As a black female graduate student at Maryland in the 1970s, Shorter-Gooden said, she found the university's racial environment "alienating," and she worried about the subtext of keeping the name decades later.

"I think it reinforces a notion that Maryland maybe is not fully inclusive, that maybe Maryland isn't really an institution for all," Shorter-Gooden said. "That maybe black students–while of course admitted, matriculated and in class and doing research–it sends a subtle message that maybe this isn't really the place for them."

Colin Byrd pushed more persistently for the name change than anybody else at Maryland. The UMD senior has a long history with the school. His father graduated from the university in 1978, he said, and he's from Greenbelt, just a few minutes north of the campus on Route 1 in Prince George's County.

Colin has taken a sharp interest in the school's civil rights history, including the point that he shares a last name with Curley Byrd–something he called an "elephant in the room." "Obviously, black people have not always been allowed to en masse go to college," Colin said, "but specifically go to the University of Maryland."

His tactics could be confrontational: he once showed up at a committee meeting with a video camera to tape members' remarks, and at least once tried to sit at the head of the table. Some advocates for the name change worried that Colin might turn off regents and other community stakeholders who were otherwise on the fence.Though the work group meetings were open to the public, he wasn't allowed to film them. Loh, Colin said, wanted "minimum transparency, maximum secrecy."

After 10 weeks, the committee submitted its findings to Loh. It said that changing the name would "speak to central values of equality" and "reflect the aspirational ideals" of the school, while staving off a "hostile and unwelcoming climate," among other things. On the other hand, the committee said, Byrd was "a product of his time," that his name "carries positive connotations and memories" for many, and that changing it could create "instability" by allowing other buildings to meet the same fate. In total, the committee listed 12 arguments for and 10 against changing the name.

The committee submitted its report to Loh on December 4. His recommendation to take Byrd's name off the football stadium became public three days later, and the regents voted 12-5 to support him on December 11.

Thornton Dill said neutrality was important in presenting the findings, but she backed Loh once he made a choice to recommend the name change.

"I think in that process, we all learned a lot," she said. "I certainly learned a lot. And so when he made that decision, it was not hard for me to support that decision."

Black students make up about 13 percent of Maryland's student body, which is larger than proportion preferred by Curley Byrd. YouTube

Not everyone at the school is convinced that removing Byrd's name is the best way for Maryland to reconcile with its own past.

"I do think that we've whitewashed it," Turkos, the archivist, said. "We've taken a figure who had an incredible amount of influence on our campus, and we've basically erased that person from our history."

Loh had expressed a similar sentiment during the town hall meeting last April, comparing the stadium to Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, where state police beat civil-rights activists during their historic 1965 march. "Nobody in Selma wants to change the name of that bridge, even though [Pettus] was the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama," he said. "Why? Because that is part of our history. We do not condone that history, but we do not want to forget it."

Such is the crux of arguments across the country over symbols of segregation and slavery, including the recent debate over removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina's capitol building: Does removing said symbols acknowledge and atone for past wrongs? Does it harden or soften the memory of those wrongs? Does it oversimplify historical figures whose legacies can be more complex than their support of racial injustice?

"It's a point of pride when you have someone who becomes such an achiever," said Kim Lawson, the mayor of Crisfield, the Maryland town where Byrd was born in 1889. "And then 45 years after his death, everybody is all of a sudden, without ever being able to actually sit down at the table and talk to him, judging his actions looking through a rearview mirror.

"I think the name Byrd on the football stadium does more on it than it does off of it, if you're an open-minded person in this country. And that is the reality of: 'Who was Byrd? What did he stand for? Oh, really?' I can see where that was a painful past, and maybe we need to discover more tolerance and things, because he certainly didn't exemplify those things."

Many supporters of changing the name don't object to honoring Byrd somewhere, and in fact Maryland plans to do so with an exhibit in the campus's vast McKeldin Library. But, as Shorter-Gooden puts it, there was a certain irony to Maryland, where a little more than half of the football team is black, playing in a venue named for a segregationist.

"Symbols are important," she said.

Maryland defensive tackle Azubuike Ukandu spoke out in favor of changing the name of the school's football stadium. Photo by Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland's athletic department has been mostly silent about the removal of Byrd's name. Loh said before the vote that athletic director Kevin Anderson supported it. The school's football program declined to make any players available to VICE Sports for comment for this piece.

One player, junior defensive tackle Azubuike Ukandu, spoke to media about the change in December. "It's a new day and age, and we are not representing those same values that the name stood for," he said. "The name change showed me that the university will not tolerate racism on campus."

From the stadium, one can see Eppley Recreation Center, the campus gym. It is named for Geary Eppley, the coach and athletic director who, along with Byrd, barred Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a football star at Syracuse (and Shorter-Gooden's family ancestor), from playing against Maryland in 1937 because he was black.

The signage memorializing Eppley at the rec center doesn't mention race, just like Byrd's old stadium had no trace of that part of his legacy. Last April, Loh publicly acknowledged that Byrd was a racist, but Byrd's official university biography page still doesn't mention the words "black," "race," or "segregation."

"I actually think the history was whitewashed before," said Thornton Dill, the dean. "Because the story of his active engagement in maintaining a system of segregated education in Maryland was not told as a part of the story of telling who he was."

When the regents voted to remove Byrd's name from the football stadium, they approved a five-year ban on honorific renaming of university buildings—a nod from Loh to those worried Maryland would be starting down a slippery slope. Some expect that more buildings will be targets, although Ronk, the student body president, doubts it.

The name change is a step in the right direction, he said, but more work—and more campus soul searching—needs to be done.

"Symbolism is good, but it doesn't mean that we've solved racism here or really addressed underlying parts of racism at the university," Ronk said. "It's not going to change the hearts and minds of some of our students who happen to be racist, or some of our professors who happen to be racist."