Since the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day and the subsequent protests by millions against racism, institutions nationwide have confronted aspects of their public identity that were created to honor influential racists. Some have done so quickly and honestly, while others have evaded that duty while professing to value equality and while professing ignorance of their own past. Two Michigan cases illustrate the contrast.
In mid-2020, the state of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University each had a prominent building, named in the 1950s to honor a prominent Michigan white supremacist -- the Lewis Cass Building in Lansing and the Quirk building and theater at Eastern. The brutal racism of Cass, and the genteel racist bigotry of Daniel L. Quirk Jr., were well-known in the 1950s, even if overlooked in recent years. Today, due to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the state of Michigan no longer has a building named for a white supremacist. EMU, never known for quick action, still does.
Governor Whitmer’s action illustrates what Ibram X. Kendi in his best-seller “How To Be an Antiracist” calls antiracist policy, while the university’s deer-in-the-headlights stance fits Kendi’s observation that “denial is the heartbeat of racism.”
Mark Higbee is a professor of history and philosophy at Eastern Michigan University.
Lewis Cass, the territorial governor of Michigan from 1813-31 and the Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, forcefully advocated “Indian removal” and the continued enslavement of Black people. Cass was a major figure in early Michigan and an influential proponent of racist policies who enslaved people. In 1848, he was the proslavery Democratic party’s nominee for president.
On June 30, 2020, as antiracist protests were at their peak worldwide, Whitmer ordered that the Lewis Cass Building be renamed the Elliott-Larsen Building. This new name pays tribute to the legislators who wrote the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, signed into law in 1977: Daisy Elliott of Detroit, and her co-sponsor, Melvin Larsen, an Oakland County Republican. This created the first state-owned building ever named for a Black woman, the late Daisy Elliott. Whitmer’s order, made with no discernable public opposition, was an affirmation that Michigan belongs to all Michiganders.
Of course, many places across the United States are named for Cass. Cass Tech High School in Detroit, for example, was first named for him, but that personal honorific was forgotten generations ago. Its name is Cass Tech, not Lewis Cass, and its alum don’t support a name change.
Eastern Michigan University, where I work, has had a much slower response to a similar problem. The man for whom its theater and theater building were named, Daniel L. Quirk Jr., received renewed attention this summer for his decades-long promotion of blackface shows degrading African Americans.
EMU, in an anonymous statement on its website on Sept. 1, falsely asserted that “The University first became aware of this aspect of the history of Daniel L. Quirk last Sunday when the social media post from a local historian and an Eastern Michigan University graduate was brought to our attention.” It was of course common knowledge for decades, even if conveniently overlooked in recent years.
EMU’s statement went on: “The University immediately began a comprehensive investigation of the matter and will determine next steps, which may include changing the name of the building and associated theater. The University is deeply concerned about the racist behavior conveyed in the post. These actions are an affront to everything we stand for as an institution. Our investigation and resulting actions will reflect that deep concern and will be shared with the campus community.”
Two months later, the Quirk name remains, but EMU’s president announced Oct. 23 that he would recommend a new name to the board in December. What the new name will be is not yet determined, but Eastern appears to plan a popularity contest of some sort. Merificully, the president’s statement no longer held that Quirk’s enthusiasm for blackface might not be cause enough to drop his name. But the president did strangely ignore the fact that while it Quirk’s love of blackface is rightly rejected today, it was for decades acceptable, not even controversial to Eastern “as an institution,” and then entered a period of being a clear, undisputed fact that was denied, even suppressed, by university officials.
Obviously, what the university denied ever knowing had been widely known when the two Quirk facilities were named in 1958 and for years after. At least two current Eastern officials, including President James Smith, were informed of Quirk’s record soon after arriving at EMU. They responded with indifference.
But that was before antiracist massive protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd altered the capacity of white-run institutions to see institutional racism. Before the George Floyd protests, officials were able to ignore reports of racism within their institution.
That Eastern should drop the Quirk names has been obvious to antiracists since at least the 1990s. As an educational institution, Eastern should follow the example set by Governor Whitmer in June, who displayed none of the foot-dragging of EMU officials. She followed antiracist policies, not efforts to deny institutional racism, and rapidly honored Daisy Elliott.
I stand with others at EMU in saying the building and theater should be renamed to honor two enslaved African Americans, with identifiable roots in Michigan. As a former student of mine said recently, “a half-century of honoring Quirk is too long.”