A Response to the Renaming of Mulledy and McSherry Hall

Georgetown Jesuit statue
A Jesuit statue is seen in front of Freedom Hall, formerly named Mulledy Hall, on the Georgetown University campus, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Washington. After renaming the Mulledy and McSherry buildings at Georgetown University temporarily to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, Georgetown University will give preference in admissions to the descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits as part of its effort to atone for profiting from the sale of enslaved people. Georgetown president John DeGioia announced Thursday that the university will implement the admissions preferences. The university released a report calling on its leaders to offer a formal apology for the university's participation in the slave trade. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

It’s important to start out this article by acknowledging that my views do not represent The Right Way or every Republican student on campus. With that said, I think it is important to reflect on President DeGioia’s decision to rename Mulledy and McSherry Hall to Freedom and Remembrance Hall, respectively. This, of course, was decided with the help of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, as well as from pressure from a large group of students and faculty protestors.

In light of the University of Missouri and Yale University protests denouncing racism on college campuses, I understand why student-activists realized an excellent opportunity to continue advocating goals they have held for a while now, but I am not entirely sold on whether much was really accomplished. The strategy of renaming buildings in the name of championing equality is also slightly confusing.

In their recommendation to President DeGioia, the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation suggested that “the names of Mulledy and McSherry be officially stricken as soon as possible from the student residence and from the building that houses the John Main Center for Meditation.” Does that really encourage students to think about the University’s past with slavery, which was in truth, quite disappointing? This question, I imagine, is what the Working Group aimed to answer – though I will not begin a discussion of whether its best to judge the morality of individuals in the past by our own moral standards.

Does removing the Mulledy and McSherry names from campus buildings really get to the heart of the current debate about race in America? My answer to both these questions would be ‘no.’

What President DeGioia, the Working Group, and the student/faculty protestors have done is simply remove a piece of history from the campus. That does not change the history of the University. It does not change the fact that Father Mulledy sold slaves during his lifetime; it does not really change anything at all. The same logic that suggests renaming buildings is somehow leveling with a past member of the University’s poor moral compass suggests that we should also rename Washington, D.C. to distance ourselves from George Washington’s ownership of slaves. Few would argue that renaming D.C. would change our nation’s understanding of our history with slavery, just as few should think that ‘striking’ the Mulledy and McSherry names from campus will do anything.

In twenty years, a freshman class will arrive on campus and have no idea that Father Mulledy owned and sold slaves (as many Americans and many of my audiences’ ancestors did all around the world – from the US, to Europe, in the Middle East, and even in Africa, etc.). Those freshmen will know nothing of the student-faculty protestors who spent the week protesting in Red Square and Healy Hall, and our community will not be closer to addressing racial tension in the nation at large or even on our campus.

This is not to take away from the student-faculty protestors’ compassionate activism for a good cause–slavery is not doubt the main stain of our national history and something that continues to be problematic today. But what we’ve done by renaming buildings is really not that constructive: we’ve pushed the school’s history with slavery even further away by simply wiping it from university history. How are we, and future Hoyas, supposed to understand or begin to discuss a part of our school’s identity if it’s simply removed from sight? What if we did that with all our problems? The answer is that we really would not move any forward in the process, and what President DeGioia and the Working Group have allowed is simply a false step forward, when in the grand scheme of things, we’ve not moved at all.

To constructively address what Father Mulledy–and by extension what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and countless others also–did, requires not hiding the school’s past away by renaming buildings and ‘striking’ the Mulledy and McSherry name from our community. If anything, it seems we should be discussing the names now more than ever, particularly in a public setting. I do not suggest we keep Mulledy and McSherry Halls named as they are now by any means, but I think we should be willing to engage more directly with Mulledy and McSherry more than we are doing, if our goal really is to overcome the school’s history with slavery.

To be fair, President DeGioia and the Working Group’s decision is not an isolated trend. There is a tendency in the world today, or at least in the U.S., to run away from what has happened in the past and even right now through renaming things or not addressing tough discussions head on. Hillary Clinton, in this weekend’s past presidential debate, could not even say ‘radical Islam.’ There is no untruth in saying that the radicals nominally invoking and engaging with the Islamic faith are responsible for what happened in Paris last Friday. To admit that is not to degrade the Muslim community, or the Muslims we go to class and spend our time with. It is simply to tell the truth.

The sooner we get over our fascination with thinking that by changing what we call something, we are somehow solving the underlying problems that plague our community and the world at large, the sooner we can make real progress in creating a safer and healthier world for everyone.

If we want to address Georgetown’s history with slavery, besides that it occurred when slavery was fully legal and the moral standards of the world were drastically different than they are today, we cannot shy away from something so miniscule as a name. Per the Working Group’s suggestion, we have ‘stricken’ the dreaded names of Mulledy and McSherry, but now what? What is going to make campus a better place for everyone? This form ofreparations is certainly not a comprehensive solution, though the upcoming discussions hosted by the Working Group might be a start.

We need, as a community, to decide whether we are actually going to think about and discuss slavery and Georgetown, or whether we are just going to take some names away and think that we’ve solved something in the process. My guess is that we would prefer the former, but it would involve a difficult, perhaps uncomfortable, study of the school’s past, and more broadly, the moral standards of a previous time. We should see the name Mulledy and recognize how far our morality as a community and nation has progressed. It might not be perfect, but it is exponentially better than it was before, and it improves only by addressing tough questions head on.

I don’t have the solution, and apparently the Working Group and President DeGioia don’t either, but if we are going to start renaming buildings on campus with a logic that suggests we should also be renaming many other things in our city, it’s probably time we started brainstorming.