Chavis Hall Dedication Address March 9, 2019
Last year, I appointed the Commission on Institutional History and Community and asked it to identify opportunities to improve the ways that we teach and present our history. In May, the Board of Trustees invited the members of the Commission to discuss their final report. The conversation, like the report itself, was thoughtful and wide-ranging. But the Commission members who spoke that day were especially emphatic about their recommendation that we change the name of Robinson Hall. They explained that to many in the W&L community this building had come to stand as the brick-and-mortar symbol of Washington College's ownership and sale of the enslaved men and women whom it inherited from John Robinson.
Changing the name of a building is not something the Board undertakes lightly. Nor should it be. Indeed, as I reported last August in my response to the Commission Report, the Board determined that Lee Chapel and Lee House will retain their names, as will the university. But in October the Board decided to rename this building for John Chavis.
The names of buildings on our campus change infrequently. But it does happen. Some of you here today may have studied in McCormick Library. When W&L opened a new library in 1979, old McCormick was transformed into the home of the School of Commerce, Economics and Politics. The building was then known simply as the C-School for more than 20 years, until it was renamed in honor of former university president Robert Huntley. Cyrus McCormick, a significant benefactor and trustee for two decades after the Civil War, no longer has his name on a building, but he continues to be represented, and his contributions to W&L continue to be memorialized, by the statue on front campus.
Buildings and their names tell stories about who we have been and who we are. Most of our buildings are named for presidents and donors. Leyburn Library is named for a distinguished dean. Mattingly House is named for a former treasurer. Our legal staff work, ironically, in a building called The Old Jail, which is what it actually is.
We are living in a moment when the names of buildings - and streets and parks and other spaces - are receiving ever greater scrutiny. Hardly a day goes by when you won't find a story about a building name that has been called into question.
Recently, a writer discussing this phenomenon quipped that there are more good buildings in this world than there are good people.
I take his point, but that is not the case here today. When the Commission made the recommendation to change the name of this building, their intention was not to dishonor John Robinson for his ownership of slaves. If that criterion disqualified individuals from having their contributions to the university recognized, then the names of other campus buildings, and the name of the institution itself, would be different. Robinson, a trustee who left his entire estate to Washington College, continues to be memorialized by the obelisk on the lawn that marks his remains, where we will add signage that tells his story. The stories of Cyrus McCormick and John Robinson, along with many others, will also be told in our museum of institutional history.
But the story we are telling today, and which the new name on this building will help us to remember and encourage others to learn, is that of John Chavis. Chavis Hall honors an alumnus of this institution whose life and career were historic.
Ted DeLaney, Class of 1985, Professor of History, in his own inimitable style, just increased our understanding and appreciation of John Chavis considerably. Nearly two decades ago, Professor DeLaney delivered the Founders Day Address in Lee Chapel, during which he recalled the moment when, as an undergraduate student, he first became aware of Chavis. He explained that he was reading The Mind of the Old South by Clement Eaton and came across a reference to the fact that John Chavis had studied at Washington Academy.
"That was a very exciting moment for me, as it would be for any African-American student," Professor DeLaney said. "Here was a prominent free man of color who had received an education at my college!"
Eaton was one of many historians who have chronicled Chavis's accomplishments as the first African-American to complete a higher education in the United States, as the first African-American to be licensed as a minister by the Presbyterian Church, as an itinerant preacher who spoke to both black and white churches in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, and as a teacher of both white and black students. Chavis's white students included future senators and governors. He developed a long and close relationship with one of those former students, U.S. Senator Willie B. Mangum of North Carolina. In his long letters to Mangum, Chavis not only laid out his own philosophy but often criticized Mangum's political positions. One story about their relationship maintains that Chavis was instrumental in preventing a duel between Senator Mangum and a fellow member of the North Carolina Legislature.
In 1924, nearly 90 years after Chavis's death, the New York Times Magazine published a feature story written by Joseph Lacy Seawell. It is titled "Black Teacher of Southern Whites" with the subtitle "A Negro Parson Who Educated a Senator, a Judge and a Governor of North Carolina." The author, a former clerk of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, called Chavis "without any exception the most remarkable black man who ever lived in the United States."
The life story of John Chavis is a testament to the value of education - not only the value to Chavis of the education he received on this campus 220 years ago, but also the value that Chavis placed on educating all people - black and white -- in the 19th century. Washington and Lee is a pioneering educational institution, and John Chavis was a true educational pioneer. We are proud to count him as an alumnus, and to give prominent recognition to his story, as part of our ongoing efforts to tell the long and important history of our university as fully and as well as possible.
Thank you for being present at this momentous occasion. I invite you now to join me inside Chavis Hall to view the model of the plaque that will be installed in the lobby.