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Naming and renaming uni's racist monuments


For many years, historian Gary Foley has been drawing attention to the racist past inscribed throughout the infrastructure of Melbourne University. Now, as the Melbourne Age reports, some staff and students, including Tyson Holloway-Clarke (the indigenous officer at the student union) and Odette Kelada (a lecturer in Australian Indigenous studies) are campaigning to rename facilities linked to particularly egregious individuals.

Richard Berry BuildingThe university's Professor Richard Berry once stole the corpses of Indigenous people for research designed to prove the racial superiority of whites.

A leading eugenicist, he advocated a 'lethal chamber' to dispose of those he dubbed 'the grosser types of our mental defectives'. Gassing would, Berry said, be the 'kindest, wisest and best thing for all concerned.'

Today, Melbourne University honours Berry via the Richard Berry building near its main entrance.

Similarly, the Frank Tate student centre pays homage to an education reformer, who advocated forcible sterilisation of 'undesirables' such as Aboriginals, homosexuals and the poor. Other venues, such as the Agar lecture theatre, the Baldwin Spencer building and the John Medley building, also celebrate academics linked to racial theorising.

The renewed interest in the university's past comes in the wake of similar campaigns in the US. The massacre of nine people in a historic black church in Charleston eventually spurred the removal of a Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. But the outcry against the ensign of the slave states also drew attention to other aspects of public history.

For instance, the State House gardens in Columbia also contain a huge statue of 'Pitchfork' Ben Tillman, who governed South Carolina between 1890 and 1894 and represented the state in the US senate for many years. Tillman was an avowed racist, who not only defended lynching but also personally participated in racial killings during the Hamburg Massacre of 1876.

The sculpture makes no mention of that: rather, it lauds a 'life of service and achievement'.

You can find similar monuments to confederate heroes, including leaders of the KKK and similar groups, all through the south.

Perhaps the closest analogy to the Melbourne University situation comes from Princeton in New Jersey, where students recently occupied the president's office in protest against the use of Woodrow Wilson's name on two buildings. Wilson was Princeton a graduate and later university president, before he became president of the USA between 1913 to 1921.

Though often remembered as a pioneer of American liberalism, he was also a white supremacist responsible for introducing segregation to federal buildings throughout the nation.

Some conservatives have denounced the anti-racists as unduly sensitive, upset about labels that their peers don't even notice. That argument works both ways, though. If the names don't matter, Princeton (and, for that matter, Melbourne) shouldn't mind if they're changed to honour, say, noteworthy black scholars. But, of course, they do.

Others have accused the students of politically correct censorship. But, as Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, argues, they're actually doing the opposite. On its official material, Princeton says nothing about Wilson's racial policies. The students have forced the university — and the US as a whole — to talk openly about matters many would prefer not to discuss at all.

The same might be said about Melbourne. Researcher Ross Jones has documented the ties between the university and the Eugenics Society of Victoria: the society was, he says, 'an offspring of the University of Melbourne'. He also argues that details about the prominent individuals who supported eugenics have been ignored or suppressed, after eugenics fell into disrepute in the wake of the Holocaust.

In other words, the past has already been censored — and the campaigners are dragging it back into the light.

We're sometimes told it's wrong to judge historical figures by today's standards. That's true, up to a point. Nevertheless, we can, and should, decide what our generation thinks of the history it's inherited.

That's not necessarily a simple process. Walter Benjamin argued there was no document of civilisation that was not simultaneously a document of barbarism, since past cultures necessarily depended on oppression and exploitation. His friend Berthold Brecht made the same point in his poem 'Questions From a Worker Who Reads'. 'Great Rome is full of triumphal arches,' he writes, 'Who erected them?'

Ancient architecture doesn't become aesthetically worthless because it was constructed by slaves. Yet any serious assessment of Roman civilisation must begin by acknowledging the centrality of slave production to the glories of the ancient world. In the same way, universities and other institutions have to be held to account for their history as a whole, and not just the bits they'd like to remember.   

Yes, eugenic 'science' was once quite mainstream, embraced by thinkers from the ultra right, the centre and the extreme left (see, for instance, the curious references in Leon Trotsky's article, 'If America should go communist'). But that's all the more reason to draw attention to its pernicious consequences, particularly because they're still felt today in attitudes to Indigenous people and Indigenous history.

Some activists in Columbia argue that the Tillman statue should be toppled. Others want to add a plaque with new text, transforming the sculpture of a notorious segregationist into a way of remembering the state's Jim Crow past.

Renaming the Richard Berry building won't redress the historical wrongs performed in the name of eugenics. It might, however, provoke a useful debate about what Melbourne University remembers and why. That can only be a good thing.

Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, United Patriots Front, fascism



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Existing comments

It’s good to see that Mr Sparrow is concerned about eugenics and delving into the past. For balance, he must also consider: Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, who supported forced sterilizations and eugenics; spoke at a KKK rally in 1926, and initiated “The Negro Project” but “we do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” Today abortion is the greatest cause of black deaths in America. Karl Marx, who paid his employee, Helen Demuth, no wages at all. He impregnated her, denied paternity lest it damage his image, fostered the child out, and then forbade the child to use the front door when visiting, only allowing him to see his mother in the kitchen. Understanding Marx might help to explain his ideology for which tens of millions perished. Mr Sparrow quotes Berthold Brecht, a man “without a sole redeeming feature” according to historian Paul Johnson. Brecht was a clandestine agent of the Soviet Union and a recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize. He supported Stalin’s show trials with the infamous statement, “the more innocent they are the more they deserve to be shot.” By all means, let’s look at the past, fully.

Ross Howard | 02 December 2015  

And while we are at it, how can we allow Melbourne to be named after a man who was fond of spanking sessions with his lady friends and more serious floggings of his female staff? On a serious note, there is great danger in evaluating events of the past against today's standards and understandings - ask George Pell.

Frank | 02 December 2015  

You have certainly alerted me to something which happened at my old university of which I was totally unaware. I felt motivated to do some wider reading on the matter. I believe it was Ross Jones who first unearthed the connection between Melbourne University and Eugenics when writing the history of the Anatomy Department. There is an article from the Sydney Morning Herald of September 13 2011 http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/a-theory-out-of-the-darkness-20110912-1k5r6.html which describes Ross's findings in some detail. To its credit the Department fully acknowledged this part of its past. There was no attempt to hide anything. The Theory of Eugenics and its supporters in Melbourne had quite an influence on politics and education in the 1920s and 1930s. Interest in and support for Eugenics in Victoria died out in the 1930s. Frederic Wood Jones, who succeeded Berry, was a debunker of his predecessor's theories, including the one that Aboriginals were inferior. This is a dark part of our past and I am glad it came to light. I think the university needs to seek conciliation with the Aboriginal community but I think the building names, with the appropriate corrective plaques, detailing what happened and an apology, should be kept.

Edward Fido | 02 December 2015  

While "racial theorising" may be racist, taking an interest in human difference was ultimately able to show that racism was not a scientifically valid concept. By all means expose the evil but watch the baby isn't whisked away.

Rose | 02 December 2015  

It's not just past cultures that depend on oppression and exploitation. The depressing conclusion from reading this article is that nothing has changed much.

ErikH | 02 December 2015  

We seem to want to see people as either all good or all bad. Humanity doesn't work that way. In some cases these buildings have been named for actions that have nothing to do with racism and these should not be forgotten. Perhaps obvious plaques that also record their inappropriate views. 'The evil men do lives after them. The good is often interred with their bones.' Shakespere.

Margaret McDonald | 02 December 2015  

I'm a bit ambivalent about the suggestion to change the name of the Berry building. I can see how it offends, but on the other hand, it is also a reminder of things that did indeed happen in our past and we have to remember that. What is it about Professors of Anatomy? The founding professor of Anatomy in Adelaide, Archibald Watson, had a spot of blackbirding on his CV, (but he does not have any prominent building named after him). A bigger issue for me is Townsville, named after a notorious blackbirder who was regarded as a bit of a hero in his time. That really is embarrassing, but I can't see a name change their being very practical. If MU did want to change the name of their Mathematics and Statistics building, why not change it to the Geoffrey Watson building? Geoffrey Watson was a distinguished graduate of MU, and an internationally renowned statistician. He worked in geology and did a lot of the pioneering work on plate tectonics.

Bill Venables | 02 December 2015  

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