Today the Macalester Board of Trustees announced approved actions relating to the name of Neill Hall. The name of Edward Duffield Neill shall be removed from Neill Hall and from the Neill Room in Weyerhaeuser Hall. The text of a message to the campus community from Board Chair Jerry Crawford and President Brian Rosenberg appears below.
The Reverend Edward Duffield Neill (1823-1893) was an important figure in the religious and educational history of Minnesota. He founded both First Presbyterian Church and House of Hope Presbyterian Church and served as the first Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Minnesota, the first Chancellor of the University of Minnesota and, from 1874 to 1885, the first President of Macalester College.
Neill was also an American historian—the author of more than a dozen books, chiefly on colonial and Minnesota history—and that work has been the subject of much recent attention on campus. The language and attitudes expressed toward indigenous people in those writings are racist and dehumanizing in the extreme, even by the admittedly different standards of the time. There were many Presbyterian ministers of the period whose attitudes would have been far more supportive of indigenous people than Neill’s.
In October of 2013, the Board of Trustees voted to change the name of the “Humanities Building,” adjacent to the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, to Neill Hall. The renaming was intended to remove confusion—the majority of our humanities departments are not in fact housed in the building—and to honor the founder and first president of the college. It was neither controversial nor extensively discussed at that time.
To be fair to the Board, and indeed to all at the college who have viewed Neill through only a partial lens for many decades, this racism is nowhere brought to light in his official biography, any on-line references, or even the independent history of the college, Nature and Revelation, published in 2010 by the University of Minnesota Press. The Board acted in 2013 on the basis of the information at hand. Only when students, including members of the student organization Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE), went back to the primary texts—Neill’s historical writings—were his beliefs brought to our attention. Those students should be commended for engaging in a level of research that reflects well on them and their teachers, and we should acknowledge that such research should have been done by the college much earlier. Had it been done, the Board is convinced that the building would not have been named in honor of Neill.
Now that those writings have been discovered, however, they cannot be ignored or dismissed. All on the Board are keenly aware of the complexity surrounding the question of renaming buildings and of judging figures in the past by the standards of the present. We are aware that even people who do good things can also do bad things, and that history is complicated. But we believe, too, that abhorrent beliefs and writings that stand out even within an historical context should not be overlooked, and that continuing to honor Neill as if these beliefs and writings were not unearthed would be wrong.
Macalester College and its Board chooses not to defend in any sense views as extreme as those of Neill. The students, staff, and faculty at the college should not be forced to overlook what we now know about Neill and to work in a building that bears his name.
The Board does not see this as the beginning of a process of reexamining the names of all our buildings or of erasing from history any individual who was imperfect. Indeed, we do not suggest erasing Neill from our history, but instead that we recognize both his accomplishments and his deep flaws in some way other than through the naming of a building.
The Board of Trustees of Macalester College, therefore, has voted to approve the following actions:
1. The name of Edward Duffield Neill shall be removed from Neill Hall and from the Neill Room in Weyerhaeuser Hall.
2. The college shall determine a different, appropriate manner through which to acknowledge both the accomplishments and the racism of the Reverend Edward Duffield Neill. That is, we should not pretend that he is anything other than a seminal figure in our history and an influential figure in the history of Minnesota and we should seek not to ignore but to learn from the past.
3. The Board shall establish a committee, with appropriate membership from all college constituencies, to recommend for its consideration new names for what are now Neill Hall and the Neill Room. Until a new name for the building is chosen, its name shall revert to the “Humanities Building” as the simplest option.
We believe these steps to be consistent with the mission and values of Macalester College.
Jerry Crawford, Chair of the Board of Trustees
Brian Rosenberg, President
November 18 2019Back to top