By Jane Dail
December 18, 2014
Tucked up on College Hill, an inconspicuous brick building looks like any other residence hall on East Carolina University’s campus. But more than 50 years after its construction, it is the most hotly debated building on campus.
In 1961, the East Carolina College Board of Trustees voted to dedicate a residence hall to former Gov. Charles B. Aycock posthumously, prior to integration in area public schools and the institution. The ECU Board of Trustees will vote today on whether to rename the building.
Tyree Barnes, a senior in religious studies and psychology, spoke to the ECU Board of Trustees during its November meeting urging them to remove the name of the controversial political leader from the campus.
Barnes said during an interview Friday he does not see it as a racial issue.
“I personally don’t think it’s a black and white issue,” he said. “I think it’s who is asleep and who is awake.”
Elizabeth Aycock Krewson, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, said she is a distant relative of Aycock.
Krewson said she and her family, who live in Greenville and Farmville, believe there are two sides to every story, and Aycock’s accomplishments are not being acknowledged.
“We were deeply saddened and feel that the public outcry in favor of changing the Aycock name dorm (is largely built) on a platform of misunderstanding and (heightened) racial tension,” Krewson said.
Aycock’s legacy includes progress for education while also suppressing and intimidating black voters for political gain.
Opinions differed from students across the ECU community, as evidenced by a survey where 52 percent of students, 60 percent of faculty, 41 percent of staff, 31 percent of alumni and 33 percent of other participants voted in favor of renaming the residence hall.
An ad hoc committee that looked into changing the name voted unanimously Friday to recommend to the chancellor to have the building renamed. The chancellor will make his recommendation to the trustees.
The committee’s report states the continued use of the name “dishonors the university’s standards” and goes against its mission to foster diversity.
“That growing awareness of Governor Aycock’s advocacy of white supremacy, his belief that African Americans were inherently inferior to the white race and his actions to advance those beliefs must be contrasted with the values stated in ECU’s mission and values statement,” the report stated.
Aycock, a Democrat, served as governor from 1901 to 1905 and became known as the “education governor.” He founded more than 1,200 public schools including 91 for black students, started the textbook commission for the state, built 877 libraries and helped create child labor laws.
Krewson said Aycock also was responsible in part for the initial allocation of funds for East Carolina Teachers Training School, which now is ECU.
Aycock also took an active role in pushing white supremacy as a way to attract white voters and worked to have the legislature pass poll taxes and literacy tests at the polls while implementing a grandfather clause for anyone who could vote in 1867 and their descendents, which excluded blacks, according to the committee‘s report.
Barnes said though Aycock created schools for blacks, they did not teach enough for students to pass literacy tests required at the polls. He said Aycock’s accomplishments were built on a foundation of oppression and scare tactics.
“We would not be able to sit here and talk about all the accomplishments of Mr. Charles B. Aycock if he had not scared blacks away from the polls,” he said.
Janae Brown, a sophomore in graphic design, said people lean on the past and use it as justification.
“I think people are just trying to hold onto that positive aspect, to keep some positive behind it,” she said. “But people are still missing that it was not to benefit anybody but the white race. If it was up to this man, I personally wouldn’t be at this campus right now.”
Brown, who served on the ad hoc committee, said this is the first big push to have the name changed.
“It’s never been as big as it is now,” she said. “A lot of stuff gets done in college. Change happens in college.”
Barnes said he and other students initially began asking for a name change through the Student Government Association, though that request did not go far. Barnes said he and other students began a campaign around campus, which caught the attention of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy. Through that avenue, Barnes and other students set up meetings with the Black Student Union and met with some of the members of the Board of Trustees before speaking at the November meeting.
Barnes, who had about 20 students including Brown with him during that meeting, said he believes his message got across to the trustees.
“The way I presented the case is it was a human issue, not just our issue,” Barnes said. “It’s everyone’s issue here at East Carolina University. It’s about doing what’s right.”
He said he has also spoken to students who live in Aycock Hall, including a resident advisor who felt uncomfortable living there, and the majority of residents are minorities. Barnes said he also has heard opposition from black students who do not understand the push behind the effort.
“They’re getting the name of Aycock mixed up with the memories,” he said. “… It could’ve been any name and you could’ve had those memories.”
Barnes said he questions why people are defending Aycock and does not believe his dedication to education is the real reason. He said this is one of the first times minorities at ECU have banded together for a common cause, and it may make some people uncomfortable.
“It’s always going to be uncomfortable birthing something bigger than yourself,” he said.
Krewson said removing Aycock’s name from the building does not fit the criteria of a new naming policy.
She did not respond to a questions about whether she understood why some people are for renaming Aycock, though she did say others who made unsavory decisions are not facing the same treatment.
“President John F. Kennedy’s indiscretions with women and Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr.’s plagiarism have both been well substantiated and documented, among others of great accomplishments,“ Krewson said. “There is not organized effort to have their names removed from anything.”
Brown said she found it ironic that ECU officials spoke out against cases of anti-semitism that happened on campus and at a student apartment earlier this year, yet the name change still is being debated.
“The disrespect we face racially, there’s nothing. There’s no message,” she said. “It’s always to defend the Jews, but when it comes to us, it’s ‘Get over it.’”
Brown said if officials do not change the name of Aycock Hall, she is considering transferring because it would contradict the university’s focus on diversity.
“When a school doesn’t push for the change that would be beneficial, I won’t give up, but what else?” Brown asked. “What else does it take?”
Barnes said the issues run deeper and there needs to be more empathy and understanding on campus.
“My intention is not to bash East Carolina University,” he said. “I love East Carolina University. I understand this thing started at the home. It started with their parents teaching them to view their world like this. How do we really get down to the root of the problem, which is a switch in belief systems, a tiny switch?”