Board of Trustees renames Palmer Hall to Southwestern Hall

Physical+Plant+staff+carry+the+Palmer+Hall+sign+away+while+a+small+crowd+observes+in+total+silence.
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Board of Trustees renames Palmer Hall to Southwestern Hall

Physical Plant staff carry the Palmer Hall sign away while a small crowd observes in total silence.

Physical Plant staff carry the Palmer Hall sign away while a small crowd observes in total silence.

Jordan Hulseberg

Physical Plant staff carry the Palmer Hall sign away while a small crowd observes in total silence.

Jordan Hulseberg

Jordan Hulseberg

Physical Plant staff carry the Palmer Hall sign away while a small crowd observes in total silence.

Jordan Hulseberg '19 and Alice Berry '21

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The Board of Trustees renamed Palmer Hall to Southwestern Hall on Friday, April 12. Following months of research by the Palmer Hall Discernment Committee and a unanimous recommendation, the Board of Trustees concurred with the committee’s decision. Palmer Hall is Rhodes’ oldest building and one of its most iconic. Its namesake, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, was a vociferous pro-slavery advocate who used the Bible as his support. His most famous speech, the Thanksgiving Sermon, was a principal reason Louisiana joined the Confederacy.

Southwestern Hall draws its namesake from the college’s previous name, which was retired in 1984. Even today, many alumni still refer to Rhodes College as Southwestern.

In an email sent to college alumni, Board of Trustees Chairman Cary Fowler ’71 wrote that a plaque will be commissioned for Southwestern Hall to place Palmer’s legacy in context. Additionally, the college will dedicate an annual event to Rhodes’ history.

In that same email, the Palmer Hall Discernment Committee stated, “This recommendation is based on the committee’s detailed investigation of the principal legacy of Benjamin Palmer, which was found to be fundamentally at odds with our college Vision. At the same time, the committee recommends that appropriate measures are taken by the administration to ensure that the college’s history is not forgotten.”

In his concluding remarks to alumni, Fowler wrote, “Southwestern Hall honors and restores a name with a rich tradition and history. With these changes we elaborate, rather than replace, history. Rhodes is a liberal arts college. We encourage critical, nuanced, contextualized thinking when we look at history and when we make judgments about human beings. We take pride in the process that led to a dispassionate, informed, and principle-driven decision, because it is through that process that you can see the college’s true values in practice.”

Jordan Hulseberg
Palmer Hall moments before its renaming.

Outgoing Black Student Association President Jamarr McCain ’19 said, “This moment is very symbolic. In the same way that racism takes forever to leave, slowly but surely it will leave when fought.”

McCain was one of a small coterie of invested Rhodes community members who had gathered to watch Palmer Hall’s sign be removed. While the physical plant dug up the sign, onlookers observed in absolute silence. Only the strikes of the shovels were heard.

Jordan Hulseberg
Physical Plant staff begin to dig up Palmer Hall sign.

Professor of Religious Studies Steve Haynes, author of “The Last Segregated Hour,” has been interested in Palmer for over two decades. Throughout much of that time, he has been advocating for the building’s renaming. Haynes said, “I told the Provost that I was going to cry at some point today, but that hasn’t happened yet. I just feel like this is the culmination of about 25-years of research on my part and even more advocacy—trying to convince people to see what I saw. Benjamin Palmer is an amazing man in some ways, but he was no longer a person we could honor in the 21st Century—given the things he stood for and the things we stand for. It’s a bit bittersweet; because when you erase history or remove history, you don’t have the object lesson—this is Palmer Hall, this is who Palmer was. A lot of people, including me, over the years have taught about Palmer. We’ve brought students to the Palmer tablet, had them read his stuff, so, I worry that at some point students won’t know this was Palmer Hall, but it was the right thing to do. I’m just really grateful to President Hass, Provost Moreland, and the Board. They had the vision and courage to do this. I know it wasn’t popular with some alumni; I understand that, but I’m thankful.”

Physical Plant staff lift the Palmer Hall sign from the ground—having recently dislodged it.

When asked what he thought of the name “Southwestern Hall,” Haynes said, “I think it’s perfect. You may know this, but there are a lot of people who graduated before 1984 who really have never adopted the Rhodes name. They like to refer to it as Southwestern still. I think it’s a perfect name because it reflects something important about the school that we don’t want to lose—that we were Southwestern for quite some time.