Who’s afraid of F. Edward Hébert?

Doxey Kamara, Intersections Editor

Will Embree

In what seems to be a tradition at Tulane University, the F. Edward Hebert Hall is once again the center of campus controversy. Most recently, Tulane faculty unofficially renamed the building in honor of Tulane alumna and historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. After the university removed signage, the following quote by F. Edward Hébert — the building’s namesake — appeared inside the building to highlight the cause of the protest: Hébert’s notoriously racist views.

I am definitely, emphatically and positively in favor of segregation, and opposed to integration, period.” 

The building houses Tulane’s Africana studies and history departments.

Less than a week after the protest, President Michael Fitts and Provost Robin Forman emailed the Tulane community about equity, diversity and inclusion at Tulane. Of the ten paragraphs in that email, seven referenced F. Edward Hébert. The email promised that both the Hebert building at Tulane’s Uptown campus, as well as the Hebert Center in Belle Chasse, would retain Hébert’s name. However, both would “prominently feature contextual facts regarding the history of their naming.”

The email from the president does not specify if this contextualization will reference Hébert’s segregationist views in passing, like Fitts does in his message, or give it more than a single-sentence footnote at the end of four paragraphs about Hébert’s life. At the end of this email, Fitts expresses gratitude to Students Organizing Against Racism for starting the conversation regarding the Hebert building name.

This conversation has been going on since the building’s name was announced in 1979

SOAR responded to Fitts’ shoutout with a statement on their Instagram page, which included the following quote:

“We question what work is being done in the Tulane History Project, first announced in an email from President Fitts over a year and a half ago (3/4/2021). Within that email, he said his ‘first request to this committee will be to propose a timeline with clear deliverables in order to share updates and progress.’ We have not seen any such updates besides saying the project does not yet have an executive director.”

Later in the statement, SOAR states that a lack of communication indicates a lack of action on behalf of Tulane. SOAR also requested a timeline of the Tulane History Project, a reconvening of the Building Naming Task Force and efforts to contextualize all buildings with ties to problematic figures. 

SOAR is right in requesting transparency; the president’s email does not provide any details about what the discussions between Tulane leadership and the Hébert family consisted of. On one hand, emails are meant to be concise. The inclusion of filler information, such as a multiple-paragraph summary of a dead segregationist’s resumé, would be in poor taste.

On the other hand, the university is not limited to addressing this topic in a single statement. The issue at hand is not that certain residence halls are named after two of the university’s first African American graduates — who would not have been able to attend Tulane University at all less than 60 years ago — but that Tulane lacks transparency regarding its contextualization efforts.

Beyond the email from the president and provost, a February 2021 report from the Building Naming Task Force seems to be the only window Tulanians have into how the university handles buildings such as Hébert Hall. The report suggests three principles for the discussion of renaming campus spaces and encourages Tulane’s Board of Administrators to ask guiding questions when considering renaming something on the basis of values.

The first guiding question asks if the principal legacy of a building’s namesake is fundamentally at odds with the university’s mission, and the second asks if said legacy was contested at the time this namesake lived. The third guiding question asks if the building’s namesake was honored for reasons which are fundamentally at odds with the university’s mission today.

Interestingly, the email which President Fitts and Provost Forman sent to the Tulane community does not answer any of these questions — nor does it condemn Hébert’s segregationist views.

However, the task force report — which they reference — takes a stronger stance. The report says that Hébert’s views were “directly and markedly opposed to the mission and principles of Tulane University.” Regarding Hébert’s political career, which the building was named to commemorate, the report says that “his Congressional record was clear, and was fundamentally at odds with the principles of Tulane University.” 

The report also acknowledges that in 1979, the year in which the Hébert building’s dedication ceremony was announced, Tulane students gathered “over 500 signatures protesting honoring Hébert because of his lifelong opposition to civil rights.”

Given the report, published over a year ago, explicitly condemns Hébert and recommends that his name be removed from both of the Tulane properties which bear it, Tulanians should ask: what has the university done since then? The task force had neither the official nor legal backing to rename this building — something they make clear in their report — and the email did not explicitly discuss what recontextualization would look like. Tulanians do not know if “recontextualization” means installing a plaque or sending an email. It may just mean adding an asterisk in front of Hébert’s name.

This radio silence concerning the contextualization effort does not just damage the credibility of Tulane University’s equity, diversity and inclusion efforts, but implies that the university has no intent to even condemn past wrongdoing. How does Tulane intend to make “progress toward building a university community that we all desire and deserve,” as the email says, when said community is being kept in the dark?

Leave a comment