Removal of Confederate reference on Vanderbilt building sets precedent years later

Special Reports

Monuments and Middle Ground

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – University campuses across the South reflect America’s Civil War history, and many Confederate monuments are at the center of controversy.

Vanderbilt’s Memorial Hall has stood proudly on campus for many years; however, the university does not often revisit its history.

The dorm, formerly named Confederate Memorial Hall, was built with nearly three decades of funding from The United Daughters of the Confederacy. 

The fundraising effort began in the mid-1890s. The group’s goal was to house teachers in a struggling post-Civil War economy.

Vanderbilt tried cutting ties with UDC in 2003. Attorney Doug Jones stepped in to represent the Daughters and a judge ruled the word “Confederate” would stay.

“This is not UDC history,” Jones said, “This is not Tennessee or Confederate, this is American history.”

History, and the precedent renaming the dorm, paid for in donor funds, it would set was key to Jones’ winning argument.

“The idea that five years from now, some new Chancellor or President could come in and erase all the history is very troubling to a lot of people,” Jones said.

A Tennessee Court of Appeals later ruled Vanderbilt could strip “Confederate” from the name if they returned the 83-year-old donation with interest.

Anonymous donors put up money for a $1.2 million payout in 2016.

At the time, Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said the inscription needed to be removed because it “spoke to a past of racial segregation [and] slavery.”

Is there middle ground to preserve Confederate monuments on college campuses? Jones said yes.

“Slavery was terrible,” Jones said, “It’s terrible. But we don’t need to erase our history. That’s what they are attempting to do here. This idea that everybody wants to tear down the monuments is not true.”

Vanderbilt thought differently.

“We are not seeking to rewrite history. We are realizing the truth that we have the privilege each day to teach, to learn, and indeed, to make history,” said Zeppos.

Decades later, the renamed Memorial Hall still stands.

Vanderbilt has since established a major annual conference focused on race and reconciliation.

Recent social unrest has renewed debate over Confederate monuments and if they represent history versus hate. News 2 digs deeper into how Tennessee is coping with its Confederate past, present, and future. Read more on Monuments & Middle Ground here.

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