In a statement to the school’s community last week, the president of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger, announced the institution will rename a dormitory that was named in honor of a slave owner.
Bard Hall, which was opened in 1931, was named for the 18th-century physician Samuel Bard. The physician served as George Washington’s doctor and is the founder of what is now the school’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Bard was, however, a slave owner who owned three slaves, according to the first-ever census that was held in the United States in 1790.
“We know about at least one instance, in 1776, in which he advertised, with a promised reward, for the return of a fugitive slave,” Bollinger revealed. The runaway slave ad in question is on the university’s slavery exhibit website.
“Bard Hall is a dormitory for our clinical students. We all understand 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. These are sites with the special resonance that comes from mixing the personal features of daily life with the formation of lasting friendships and a sense of community with a shared mission, together with a period of life involving extraordinary intellectual and professional growth.
The change I am conveying here, however, also 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, and 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.”
According to Bollinger, a group was convened by the university in June to “to consider campus names and symbols associated with matters of race and racism.” The committee, upon review, subsequently sent him a unanimous recommendation to rename the dormitory.
“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.”
The new name for the dormitory, which Bollinger says will represent the University’s values, will be announced in the fall.
The announcement also came in the wake of a petition calling the university to remove all-place names and titles honoring Bard. The petition, which was started by Dr. Raymond Givens, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia, fetched over 1000 signatures.
“No University can claim it values Black lives while forcing Black students to live in a building named for a slaveowner. We cannot claim a commitment to diversity if we have a professorship named for a slave owner. All uses of Samuel Bard’s name at Columbia must be immediately retired,” Givens wrote in the petition.
Speaking to CNN after the announcement, Givens said he hopes the school community will be involved in the renaming process and suggested two names, including Dr. Kenneth Forde – a former Black surgeon at the university who died in 2019.
“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,” he said. “The idea of Forde-Obama Hall is something that I find kind of compelling.”
Columbia follows other educational institutions in the United States that have moved to atone for their ties to slavery or racial discrimination in recent years. The ongoing protests that were sparked by the death of George Floyd have also reignited the conversation on how to deal with the messiest part of America’s history.
In 2019, Princeton Theological Seminary, for instance, announced they were setting aside $27.6 million for a reparations plan to “repent” for its past ties to slavery.
Georgetown University also renamed buildings that had the names of Jesuits who were involved in the sale of slaves in 2017. That same year, Yale University announced it was going to rename a college that was named in honor of John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery advocate, and a well-known White supremacist.