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Columbia University will remove slave owner’s name from dormitory

Andrew Cuomo

Columbia University has announced it will remove the name of a slave owner from a dormitory on its Manhattan medical campus.

A new name for the clinical student dorm, Bard Hall, will be announced in the fall, President Lee C. Bollinger said in a letter to the school community Friday.

Bard Hall was opened in 1931, Bollinger said. It was named for Samuel Bard, an 18th-century physician who served as George Washington’s doctor and founded what is now the university’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

But Bard was also a slave owner, Bollinger said. He cited the first US census in 1790, which indicated Bard owned three slaves, though a project dedicated to exploring Columbia University’s historical connections to slavery says Bard owned eight slaves in the early 19th century.

“We know about at least one instance, in 1776, in which (Bard) advertised, with a promised reward, for the return of a fugitive slave,” Bollinger wrote.

The university convened a group in June to “consider campus names and symbols associated with matters of race and racism,” the letter said. That committee unanimously recommended renaming the dorm. The group will continue its work into the academic year, the letter said.

In his letter, Bollinger emphasized “how careful we need to be in shaping the environment, symbolic as well as physical, in which we ask our students to live and to call home.”

The change “feels urgent not only for the individuals who have been asked to call Bard Hall home, but for the many students, staff, and faculty in the broader Columbia community,” Bollinger said, in part.

He added it is “especially vivid at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where the contradiction between the egalitarian health service norms they cherish and slavery’s denial of full human standing is starkly blatant and offensive.”

“Of course, we cannot, indeed should not, erase Samuel Bard’s contributions to the medical school,” Bollinger said. “But we must not recall this history without also recognizing the reason for our decision to rename Bard Hall.”

Dr. Raymond Givens, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia, told CNN he has wanted to see the name changed since he learned several years ago that Bard was a slave owner.

Givens, who is Black, said it became especially important to him after his young son enrolled in the nursery school located at Bard Hall.

“On the one hand it was a point of pride to be able to give my son that type of headstart in life,” Givens told CNN in an interview. “But knowing that I was dropping him off every day in a building named for somebody who would have seen him as property was kind of a heavy feeling.”

In light of both the police killing of George Floyd and the impact Covid-19 has had on Black communities, Givens said he felt he needed to raise the issue of renaming Bard Hall and wrote to Bollinger and other members of the university’s leadership. He also started a petition, urging the university to remove Bard’s name from the dorm.

In recent years, a number of institutions and communities have renamed buildings or removed statues and monuments based on their historical links to slavery, racism or the Confederacy. The movement has gained momentum amid a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In 2017, Georgetown University in Washington, DC, renamed campus buildings named after Jesuits who supervised the sale of slaves. The Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey pledged last October to spend about $28 million on reparations over its ties to slavery, including scholarships and fellowships for descendants of enslaved people and renaming campus spaces in honor of prominent African Americans.

In June, Princeton University announced it would remove the name of President Woodrow Wilson from its school of public policy and a residential college, citing his “racist thinking and policies.” Wilson had defended segregation and slavery and denied admission to Black men when he was the school’s president.

Givens said Columbia still has a long road ahead to address its historical connections to slavery, pointing to the steps taken by Princeton Theological Seminary as a potential “template” for how that can be done.

“Because of the powerful advocacy of Dr. Givens and the contributions of many others, we will soon see this residence hall named in a way that aligns with the values of our medical center and the university,” a university spokesperson told CNN.

Givens also hopes the community has input on how the dorm is renamed. He said one potential namesake could be the late Dr. Kenneth Forde, who was a prominent Black surgeon at Columbia.

“A name I would like to throw in the ring is Barack Obama, who is not a doctor obviously, but is a Columbia grad and also inarguably had a sweeping effect on American healthcare through the Affordable Care Act.”

“The idea of Forde-Obama Hall is something that I find kind of compelling,” he said.

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