OPINION | Tulane should address its namesake, Paul Tulane

Bobby Becker, Staff Columnist

(Will Embree)

Karl J. Conner recalled noticing street names when biking through New Orleans as a child. He then researched those names at Milton H. Latter Memorial Library and found many of them fought for his exclusion from society.

In 2020, the city appointed Conner as chair of the New Orleans City Council Street Renaming Commission. Aimed at ceasing to honor historical figures tied to white supremacy, the commission now recommends renaming Tulane Avenue.

“Tourists ride on these streets and stop at our parks and read the names and plaques that are there,” Conner said, “the people we choose to honor tell the story of New Orleans.” 

Paul Tulane is the shared namesake between Tulane Avenue and Tulane University. He donated generously to the Confederacy and Confederate-affiliated groups, and his career as a pre-war merchant in New Orleans relied on slave labor. In the commission’s evaluation, these factors outweigh Paul Tulane’s philanthropic behavior, such as his reestablishment of our university.

Archivist Ann Case said university records of Paul Tulane tell a different story: Paul Tulane’s Confederate support consisted of charitable aid to Confederate veterans, widows and orphans. She entertains the possibility that Paul Tulane purchased Confederate bonds but only to capitalize off their high-interest returns. 

Historical figures are not James Bond villains; they can display great altruism while contributing to egregious evils. Likewise, even the greatest leaders of the past fall short of our current ideals — and if moral progress is to persist — we too will disappoint future generations.

But historical figures are not equal. No amount of nuance can discount the real differences in how they acted and what causes they stood for. Evaluating Paul Tulane’s character is a difficult task, but it is vital to telling our school’s history in truth. 

Instead of recognizing the complicated past of its namesake, the administration glosses over him. The university website gives two sentences on Paul Tulane under their history: 

“Tulane became a private university in 1884 when the public University of Louisiana was reorganized and named in honor of benefactor Paul Tulane, a wealthy merchant who bequeathed more than $1 million to endow a university “for the promotion and encouragement of intellectual, moral and industrial education.” A native of Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Tulane had made his fortune in New Orleans and his gift expressed his appreciation to this Southern city on the Mississippi River.” 

Paul Tulane’s full quote reads “for the promotion and encouragement of intellectual, moral and industrial education of white young persons.”

A productive reading into the U.S. Constitution recognizes its higher ideals while acknowledging the founding fathers’ intent to exclude women, non-whites and the impoverished. In contrast, our school avoids tackling the darker aspects of our founder by surgically removing his incriminating words. 

Little else about Paul Tulane can be found on the university’s website. A merit scholarship — The Paul Tulane Award — and a donor club — The Paul Tulane Society —  also bear his name, but neither program describe him in any detail.

Indeed, more fully portraying Paul Tulane could risk the school’s reputation among prospective donors and students. Conner, however, warns the alternative is far worst: 

“They’ll be others who make sure the past is remembered … it will be a constant drum beat getting louder and louder every year. It will get more and more organized such that there will eventually be a branding impact to Tulane where people won’t come.”

Paul Tulane already wrote his own story. Now, we can either proactively address who Paul Tulane was or wait for outside pressure to force us to. Which story will we choose to write?

This article has been corrected.