FSU President Thrasher agrees to remove BK Roberts name from law school

Yesterday FSU President John Thrasher promised to seek legislative action to legally remove BK Roberts' name from the main law school classroom building and instead provide contextualized recognition of Roberts' within the law school, accepting the FSU Renaming Committee's recommendations.

Thrasher noted that to keep Roberts name on the building would continue to honor someone whose decisions and actions supporting segregation do not reflect FSU's values or the rule of law.  Instead, the contributions Roberts made to founding the law school and Florida's legal system could be recognized in a more appropriate and alternative manner within the law school. 

While Roberts left a complicated legacy, Thrasher said, Roberts' name on the building is a painful reminder of Florida's segregationist history and highly offensive to many in the FSU community.  Thrasher also noted Roberts' name on the building celebrates a man who defied the highest court in the land and does so at the very place on campus where FSU teaches the rule of law.

The FSU panel met over the past 10 months and voted May 4 to recommend removing Roberts' name from the building.  The full text of Thrasher's July 17 written statement can be found here.  Thrasher's decision came less than a week after the panel issued its written recommendations July 12 (full text).

Since only the legislature has the power to change the building name, Thrasher promised to seek legislative action to remove Roberts' name from the building.  The legislature next scheduled meeting is in March 2019, after the 2018 elections.  Thrasher is a former speaker of the house and senator and also a 1972 graduate of the FSU College of Law.  FSU is expected to use university lobbyists to press for approval of the measure during next year's session.

FSU panel recommends removal of BK Roberts name

Great news!  On May 4 the FSU Committee on Renamings voted unanimously to recommend to President Thrasher that BK Roberts' name be removed from the FSU law school main classroom building.  The committee noted that Roberts could still be recognized in some other manner for his contributions to founding the law school, but that his name on the building was not an appropriate honor given his past history of repeatedly defying the orders of a higher court in order to defend segregation. 

Committee members noted that Roberts defense of segregation represented a misuse of power and responsibility that is at odds with the core values and current mission of FSU, and made it more difficult to build community on campus.  A member noted BK Roberts' name on the building casts a long and ominous shadow over the school as FSU attempts to recruit, retain and graduate an ethnically diverse group of students, and that it is difficult to understand how the school can aspire to produce students who are expected to uphold the law and protect the interests of all citizens while in a building whose namesake BK Roberts represents values and actions that are contrary to issues involving basic civil and human rights. 

Another mentioned that exclusion of any race is unacceptable and should not warrant the naming of a campus building.  Still another said it was problematic to honor a person like Roberts in such a prestigious manner when he ultimately did not uphold the law and vehemently spoke out against equality. 

A few members spoke in favor of alternatives like keeping Roberts' name with the addition of contextualizing his segregationist history, or "retiring" the name while adding educational materials to tell the whole story. Ultimately, however, all panel members voted unanimously in favor of removing BK Roberts' name from the building.

This recommendation is an important step but not the end, since next FSU President John Thrasher must accept the recommendation (which is expected), and then ultimately the decision must be approved by the legislature.  Once Thrasher accepts the recommendation, FSU is likely to submit the proposal to the legislature next fall as part of its annual legislative package and then FSU lobbyists would promote the removal of Roberts' name from the building.  The next scheduled meeting for the legislature is in the spring of 2019.

In other business, the committee also recommended removing the name of Francis Eppes from the criminology/psychology building due to his past history of owning and oppressing slaves, as well as removing a statue of Eppes from in front of the Westcott Building at FSU's eastern entrance on College Avenue where the FSU administration is housed.  The Eppes recommendations would not need legislative approval.

 

Renaming principles adopted, decision promised soon

The FSU committee considering the renaming of BK Roberts Hall at its April 27 meeting adopted several principles to be used in considering whether or not the building should be renamed.  The committee announced it will make its final decision May 4 after applying the principles to the question of renaming BK Roberts Hall.

Among the principles adopted include whether a prominent legacy of the namesake is fundamentally at odds with the current values or mission of FSU, and whether the recognition of the namesake is having a significant adverse impact on the current local or university community.  The committee also identified the following options for the buildings and statues being reviewed: renaming, relocating, removing, contextualizing, retiring, modification (such as covering), adding additional information, and doing nothing.

Once the committee makes its final recommendations, the issue will move to FSU President John Thrasher who can accept or reject the committee's recommendation.  Since BK Roberts Hall was named by the Florida legislature, the final decision on renaming the building rests with it.

 

FSU historian notes BK Roberts was racist

An FSU historian addressing the committee on renaming yesterday noted his research showed BK Roberts was most likely a racist.  FSU student John Cable, at the request of the committee, studied the history surrounding BK Roberts and Frances Eppes and reported his findings to the committee.  Cable's findings included prosecutors describing Roberts as a "law and order type," which Cable explained was "dog whistle code" in the 1950s to communicate that someone was an "old school racist."  Cable also noted Roberts seemed a consummate Southern gentleman and had also been a philanthropist. 

Cable also mentioned the study relied upon in Roberts' 1957 legal opinion to justify defiance of the US Supreme Court's order to admit Virgil Hawkins to UF law school without delay because of the likelihood of "great public mischief."  Cable said the study was based on questions like "What would you do if a Negro entered a swimming pool with you?" and "What would you do if you were assigned to a dormitory room with a Negro roommate?"

The committee seems closer to making a recommendation about whether or not to rename BK Roberts Hall but has yet to indicate what the finding will be.  Members discussed writing an FSU policy on renamings, and mentioned a 2016 policy from Yale University as one they would like to use as a template.  That policy contains a presumption against renaming, and includes among the principles to be considered during any renaming evaluation the question of whether the legacy of the namesake is fundamentally at odds with the mission of the university.  A policy from University of Michigan is also being reviewed.  The committee indicated it hopes to make a final recommendation on whether to rename BK Roberts Hall in the next month or so.

BK Roberts supporters address committee

Supporters of keeping BK Roberts name on FSU law school's classroom building, including former FSU president and law school dean Sandy D'Alemberte, addressed the FSU Renaming Committee April 2.  D'Alemberte noted that while he had known BK Roberts for a number of years and was not an admirer, he still thought Roberts' name on the building was appropriate given the role Roberts played in getting the law school started in the 1960s.  D'Alemberte also pointed out that BK Roberts wrote many excellent judicial opinions over his career, but the ones that prevented Virgil Hawkins from attending law school because he was black in the 1950s were wrong at a time when Roberts should have gotten it right.  However, despite the negative aspects of Roberts' career, his role in creating the FSU law school was deserving of recognition by naming the building after Roberts.

Also speaking in support of keeping Roberts' name on the building was Fred Baggett, FSU law school class of 1970 and former law clerk and law partner of Roberts.  Baggett noted Roberts 1950s opinions regarding Virgil Hawkins were indefensible, especially after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed separate but equal education systems in 1954.  But he also noted Roberts' extraordinary efforts to get the FSU law school off the ground in 1965 justified his name on the building.  Baggett also noted Roberts was the founder of the Florida public defender system and was one of the champions of court reform in Florida in the 1970s and worked to establish the simplified judicial system still in use today.

Other speakers appeared and spoke in favor of removing Roberts name from the building.  Also at the meeting was FSU President John Thrasher, who revealed that he invited D'Alemberte and Baggett to address the committee.  The committee indicated it hopes to make a recommendation to Thrasher about renaming BK Roberts Hall in the next few months.

55 petitions given to committee

Last week I sent the rest of the online petitions to the FSU committee, making a total of 55 petitions furnished so far.  I also pointed out that the vast majority of petitioners said that BK Roberts name on the law school made them less likely to make a financial contribution to the school.

I also drafted some language for an FSU policy on building naming and furnished that to the committee as well:

Buildings and statues are a high honor and should be reserved for those of exemplary character who also have made a significant contribution to FSU or society in general.    Exemplary character should include consideration of whether the person has complied with the university’s policy of non-discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veterans' status, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or any other legally protected group status.  Discrimination may be viewed retrospectively and may include things like support for segregation or slavery, even though legal or widely accepted during the person’s era.

The committee has set it's next meeting for Monday March 19 at 3pm.

Supreme Court Justice calls BK Roberts opinions 'Shocking'

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead appeared at the final public forum held by the FSU Renaming Committee yesterday and told the group that he and his colleagues on the court found the pro-segregation opinions written by BK Roberts to be "shocking."  Anstead noted that the court's opinions in the 1950s preventing Virgil Hawkins from attending law school because he was black--including two by BK Roberts--were offensive and that the court during Anstead's term were truly ashamed of them. 

This sense of regret led the court in 1999 to hold a special ceremony to issue an unprecedented public apology to the family of Hawkins for the court's role in keeping him out of law school due to his race.  Anstead told the committee this was the only time in its history that the Florida Supreme Court issued a public apology.  Anstead served on the Florida Supreme Court from 1994-2009, including a stint as Chief Justice from 2002-04.

Other speakers also testified in support of renaming BK Roberts Hall, including me.  The committee held 5 public forums in the past 8 days and will now move on to crafting a building naming policy and a recommendation to FSU President John Thrasher regarding whether BK Roberts Hall should be renamed.

Overwhelming support for renaming expressed at town hall meeting held in BK Roberts Hall

 A law student addresses the FSU renaming committee during the town hall meeting at BK Roberts Hall.

A law student addresses the FSU renaming committee during the town hall meeting at BK Roberts Hall.

About 25 students and alumni spoke out in support of renaming the building at the public forum held this morning in the FSU law school's BK Roberts Hall.  While the support for the renaming was overwhelming, a couple speakers argued against the change.  The speakers were about evenly split between whites and blacks; mainly FSU law students with one alumnus.

The main theme of most comments was that BK Roberts name on the building was inappropriate given his past support of segregation, notwithstanding his good deeds and his efforts to get the law school up and running.  Opponents stressed changing the name now would be a misguided attempt to erase or rewrite history, or take away a tool for teaching and learning from the past.

Several black law students noted that they made the decision to attend FSU because of information disseminated by the law school indicating blacks would be welcomed.  However, once they became students and discovered BK Roberts's history of defending segregation (not mentioned during orientation or recruiting), the message seemed contrary to being welcome and made them feel like outsiders.  The name gives them the feeling black people don't matter at FSU, and gives the impression that BK Roberts's segregationist views are synonymous with those of FSU.

Some students pointed out that BK Roberts deserved some sort of recognition such as a plaque inside the building, but his name on the building was bestowing too high an honor on an undeserving person.  Others pointed out the name makes FSU seem like it is anti-minority and opposed to inclusiveness, and will keep people of color from coming to FSU in the future.

A few students felt misled by FSU, observing that before committing to attend the law school they reviewed several schools and crossed some off the list due to perceived links with past racism, but that FSU seemed acceptable since the school was welcoming and that prominent black alumni who represented people like Trayvon Martin were part of FSU's recruiting sales pitch.  These students felt duped once they committed to FSU and discovered only after the fact that the school building was named for a prominent segregationist.

 Several law students dressed in black to show solidarity in support of renaming BK Roberts Hall.

Several law students dressed in black to show solidarity in support of renaming BK Roberts Hall.

The school alumnus who spoke noted he was at the dedication ceremony for BK Roberts Hall in 1974 but that his segregationist past was not mentioned as part of the official ceremony, and those who tried to bring up the subject were ostracized and subjected to ridicule.  He felt BK Roberts name on the building today diminished the law school and its reputation.  He also noted that when it was created in 1966, FSU essentially stole FAMU's law school since the line items in the state budget were simply transferred from the closing FAMU school to the opening FSU school.

The two students who spoke against the renaming acknowledged BK Roberts's dark past but one thought it was improper to rewrite history and a better solution would be to keep BK Roberts name on the building and balance it out by naming the adjoining library building for Virgil Hawkins.  The second felt removing Roberts's name was an ill-advised effort to bury the past and it would be better to keep the name and use it as a teaching tool to help current students learn about the need to fight racism.  Other students countered that changing the name would not bury history, but would be making new history, and that FSU itself had changed its name several times over the years to keep abreast with changes in society and its student body.

The committee held another town hall meeting at the FSU Alumni Center Tuesday 2/27 and speakers also testified overwhelmingly in favor of changing the name of BK Roberts Hall, with only one of about 15 speakers defending the status quo.  Most speakers at this meeting, however, addressed the problems with honoring Francis Eppes, a former slave owner credited with founding FSU in the 1800s and now the subject of controversy after the criminology building was named for him and a statue of him was erected near the Westcott Building in his honor.  BK Roberts was not the main focus of the discussion, though I did speak for 10 minutes about why the law school building should be renamed.

Public forums coming

The FSU Committee on Renamings met again yesterday and I used my 3 minutes to again urge them to take BK Roberts name off the law school.  I also submitted the 14 petitions submitted thru this website in favor of renaming the building.  I also noted that the overwhelming majority of those who submitted the petitions said BK Roberts name on the building makes them less likely to make a contribution to the law school.

The committee agreed to hold several public forums in the near future to obtain additional input, and while no specific dates were set, the target dates were for the last week in February and first week in March.

President Thrasher tells committee to hurry up

FSU President John Thrasher came to the renaming committee meeting Feb 2 and said he wants the group to prioritize recommendations on renaming BK Roberts Hall and the Frances Eppes building/statue, and save recommendations on other campus buildings for later.  FSU's lawyer also pointed out that since the legislature originally named the building for BK Roberts, only the legislature could change or remove the name.

I spoke to the committee and with my allotted 3-minutes stressed Roberts' segregationist past and his repeated failure to follow the orders of a higher court in defense of segregation made his name inappropriate for any public building, especially a hall of learning where students are taught how to be ethical attorneys.  I also mentioned that almost 90% of those who signed the on-line petition said Roberts name on the building made them less likely to make a donation to the law school.  Tallahassee Barristers President Matt Williams (Class of '13) also spoke in favor of renaming the building.