Commentary

Ben Zhang: Far from perfect, Aycock name belongs

February 21, 2014 

There has been a great deal of discussion lately regarding the changing of the name of Duke University’s Aycock Residence Hall. This discussion, while stimulating, is ultimately flawed and entirely misses the point of the dormitory’s naming in the first place.

Supporters of the renaming of Aycock dorm point out the fact that Charles B. Aycock – the former governor of North Carolina after which it is named – took part in several white supremacy campaigns. They label him as a “racist” and claim that the presence of his name on Duke’s campus tarnishes the university’s image.

It is true that Aycock’s Democratic Party relied heavily on the issue of white supremacy during the elections of 1898 and 1900. Most notably, it disenfranchised many of North Carolina’s black voters by passing a suffrage amendment to the state constitution that instituted several rigorous voting requirements, such as a literacy test.

However, associating Aycock with racism is an argument with many inherent problems. To begin with, it is a rather ethnocentric viewpoint. Today’s dorm-renaming supporters fail to realize that the culture of the South one hundred years ago was very different from its present culture. Reconstruction had ended just two decades prior to the aforementioned elections of the late 19th century, and racism, like it or not, was still a fact of life in North Carolina. It is unfair to call out Aycock as a racist – he was merely following the trends of the time during which he lived.

The ‘Education Governor’

In addition, one must consider the reason why the dorm was named after Aycock in the first place.

Throughout his term as governor of North Carolina, he became known as the “Education Governor” for his unflagging support for the public school system. Hundreds of schools for both blacks and whites were built during his time in office, a move seen as quite progressive on his part. This is the Aycock that Duke sought to commemorate, and it is the Aycock who seems overshadowed by the aforementioned racist one promoted by many people.

Lastly, the idea of renaming Aycock seems to stem from a wave of political correctness that has gripped the nation in recent years. Washing one’s hands of a problem by covering it up and pretending it never existed is rarely the best solution – and it certainly is not in this case. No man is without his faults – even the ones that are placed on pedestals by society – and no nation’s history lacks moments that its people eventually come to regret.

Should Stone Mountain be demolished for showcasing notable Civil War Confederacy members? Should we expurgate any mention of the Founding Fathers from our lives because some of them – most notably Thomas Jefferson – owned slaves? Certainly not – we must always be reminded of the past, lest we repeat its mistakes, and the good qualities of many men outweigh their bad qualities. As a result, Charles B. Aycock, though far from perfect, fully deserves to have his name enshrined on a dormitory on Duke’s East Campus.

Ben Zhang lives in Durham.

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