Today the College announced that a bronze plaque commemorating Jefferson Davis and eighteen alumni who fought on behalf of the Confederacy in the American Civil War would be removed from its current location in the lobby of Pickard Theater in Memorial Hall. The plaque will be relocated to Special Collections & Archives where it will be accessible to students and the public.
Davis, who served as president of the Confederacy, received an honorary degree from Bowdoin in 1858, prior to the war.
In a statement issued this morning by the College, President Rose cited the events in Charlottesville as the impetus for the plaque’s removal.
“What occurred in Charlottesville and the subsequent national conversation have led us to conclude that historical artifacts like this that are directly tied to the leadership of a horrible ideology are not meant for a place designed to honor courage, principle, and freedom,” said Rose. “Rather, this part of our history belongs in a setting appropriate for study and reflection.”
In a phone interview with the Orient, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood said that the College will not rescind Davis’ honorary degree.
The move comes nearly two years after Bowdoin discontinued an annual government and legal studies department award dedicated in the name of Davis that recognized a student who excelled in the study of constitutional law. That decision came amidst an earlier wave of re-examination of the presence and use of Confederate symbols across the country, including at many universities.
Following the award’s discontinuation in 2015, the plaque remained in place. An interpretive panel was placed adjacent to the plaque in Memorial Hall explaining Bowdoin’s involvement in the Civil War, including the college’s relationship with Davis and those commemorated.
Davis served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce (Bowdoin Class of 1824). During a visit to Maine in the summer of 1858, Davis attended the College’s Commencement where he was awarded an honorary degree. In the interpretive panel, Bowdoin historian Louis C. Hatch described the circumstances the College faced in awarding Davis this honor:
“The Boards were in an embarrassing position. Mr. Davis was the Southern leader in the United States Senate and his principles were diametrically opposed to those of a majority of people in Maine; but when a man of his ability and prominence…was present at Commencement, it would have been a personal insult not to give him a degree.”
The move today is indicative of the evolving ways in which institutions recognize and wrestle with their messy histories. In 2015, the College believed the placement of this interpretive panel to be an appropriate response, acknowledging and explaining the College’s relationship with Confederate forces.
“The panel went up next to that plaque to acknowledge the history and to describe why that was there” said Hood.
He said that today’s decision to remove the plaque was based on further consideration by President Rose in the wake of recent national events.
“I think that [Rose’s] statement indicates – and I think this is really how he felt, that upon – further reflection it made sense to take it out of Memorial Hall and put it somewhere more appropriate.”
In an email to the Bowdoin community on Tuesday, President Rose condemned the racism, hate and violence on display in Charlottesville over the weekend.
“The Klan, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and those who give them comfort need to be called out for what they are—despicable” he wrote. “As our College begins its 216th year, let me say clearly and unequivocally that we reject the hate and the violence and the vile ideas that fuel them. They have no place in America or in any civilized society.”
As cities and colleges across the country see the removal of Confederate statues and monuments, Bowdoin is following suit. This morning, Duke University issued a statement announcing the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from the front of its chapel, following its defacement on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, an alum publically called on the College through Twitter to remove the plaque. However, there was little other public outcry on behalf of students or alumni.
According to Hood, the discussion was already taking place before those tweets were posted. (Many were deleted following today’s announcement.)
As of this morning the plaque was no longer on the wall in the lobby of Memorial Hall but the adjacent descriptive panel placed in 2015 remained. It will be updated in the coming weeks.
The plaque will be made accessible to members of the community and the public in Special Collections & Archives.