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Emory to rename campus spaces and professorships honoring Robert Yerkes and L.Q.C. Lamar
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Laura Diamond
Emory University entrance wall

Emory University President Gregory L. Fenves will rename campus spaces and professorships honoring Robert Yerkes, a psychologist who vigorously supported eugenics, and L.Q.C. Lamar, who was a staunch defender of slavery.

The Yerkes National Primate Research Center will be known as the Emory National Primate Research Center, effective June 1. Professorships in the Emory School of Law named after Lamar will become the Emory School of Law Distinguished Professors.

Fenves’ decisions, announced April 21 in a letter to the university community, are based on recommendations from the University Committee on Naming Honors, which he convened in October 2020 to evaluate the legacies of individuals whose names are honorifically recognized and elevated in spaces across Emory’s campuses.

“Since joining Emory in 2020, I’ve engaged in many discussions about the history of our university. Our knowledge of who we are as an institution comes from questioning and learning,” Fenves wrote in the letter. “Each generation brings new meaning to a narrative that is continually being evaluated and written.”

Led by Emory law professor Fred Smith Jr., the Committee on Naming Honors included faculty, staff, alumni and students. The group engaged in extensive research, including soliciting names for consideration from the Emory community, reviewing and building on the work of past committees, hiring two PhD students as research assistants, and consulting with internal and external experts.

The committee issued its recommendations in a May 2021 report to the president. Since then, Fenves has continued consulting with experts and considering the perspectives of Emory students, faculty, staff, leadership and alumni to determine the university’s next steps.

In June 2021, Fenves announced several initial actions in response to the committee’s recommendations. At that time, the Longstreet-Means residence hall, which bore the name of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who served as president of Emory from 1839 to 1848, was renamed Eagle Hall; a faculty chair named for him in the Department of English was renamed the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English. These changes were based, in part, on Longstreet’s strong defense of slavery, particularly while he served as Emory president.

Fenves also announced then that Language Hall at Oxford College would be renamed in honor of Horace J. Johnson Jr., a widely respected judge, lawyer and alumnus who made extraordinary contributions to the greater Atlanta and Newton County communities. Johnson was the first Black Superior Court judge in the circuit he served. Johnson Hall was dedicated in October 2021.

Reconsidering honorific names

In the April 21 community message, Fenves discussed his reasons for renaming spaces and professorships honoring Yerkes and Lamar. He also provided updates on names related to two other people identified by the committee: Atticus Green Haygood and George Foster Pierce.

Established in 1930, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center is the oldest scientific institute dedicated to nonhuman primate research and paved the way for the National Institutes of Health-funded National Primate Research Center program. Yerkes, who was an influential psychologist and early primatologist at Yale University, served as its first director. The University Committee on Naming Honors recommended that the center be renamed based on Yerkes’ vigorous support for eugenics through his writings and speeches.

“This semester, I asked the Yerkes Center leadership to convene a group of faculty and staff to provide recommendations,” Fenves wrote. “Consequently, I have decided to change the name of the center to the Emory National Primate Research Center. The Emory Board of Trustees has approved changes to the names of the buildings, grounds and related signage to reflect the new name.”

The president also agreed with the committee’s recommendation to rename two professorships at the Emory School of Law and an emeritus professorship honoring Lamar, an Emory graduate who served as an officer for the Confederacy and was a congressional representative, senator and Supreme Court justice. Lamar was a staunch defender of slavery and wrote Mississippi’s Articles of Secession from the Union.

In the message, Fenves declined the committee’s recommendation to rename campus spaces — including the main entrance gate on the Atlanta campus and a residence hall on the Oxford campus — honoring Haygood, who served as Emory’s president from 1875 to 1884 and is credited for significant work to elevate Emory during those years. The committee recommended that Emory remove Haygood’s name based on his early support of slavery.

But Fenves noted that while Haygood served as a chaplain for the Confederate Army, after the Civil War, he helped found Paine College, an HBCU in Augusta, Georgia, and he supported the development of schools and colleges for African Americans. In later years, he denounced slavery and dedicated himself to service that benefitted African American communities in the South.

“After much thought, review, and consultation surrounding Haygood’s legacy, I have decided not to accept the committee’s recommendation,” Fenves wrote. “The Haygood name will remain in place at Emory.”

The committee has also recommended that Emory rename spaces on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses honoring Pierce, a Methodist bishop who served as Emory’s president from 1848 to 1854. Fenves said he will continue to review the case of Pierce before announcing a final decision.

He also emphasized the importance of making historical information available for all of the honorific names associated with Emory, and noted that Emory Libraries has developed a contextualization guide for names reviewed by the committee.

“We will continue to explore our past with fresh perspective — strengthening understanding and shedding light on untold stories,” Fenves wrote.

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