It was August 1858 during a doctor-ordered trip to Maine when Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War for Franklin Pierce (Class of 1824) and the future President of the Confederate States of America, was granted an honorary degree by Bowdoin College at its 53rd Commencement. Then, in 1972, over a hundred years later and after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Bowdoin College, with a donation from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, endowed an award named after the pro-slavery bigot. It was 45 years later, in 2015, that the Board of Directors finally came to the realization that honoring students pursuing constitutional law with an award named after a man who led the fight against the Union was not the best course of action.
Now it is 2020, 162 years after Jefferson Davis was awarded his honorary degree, and 157 years since the Confederacy surrendered to a Bowdoin alum, Joshua Chamberlain, at Appomattox Courthouse. Bowdoin has yet to rescind his degree, stating that “Mr. Davis was a fitting man to receive it and that his later conduct had no bearing on the matter, a doctorate was given for life.” Princeton University just announced they are taking down all mentions of Woodrow Wilson due to his racist views. Why do I bring this up? Well, Wilson was the President of the United States, not a leader of a splinter group that tried to fight for the right to own another human. He was also a graduate and former president of Princeton. So to the Board of Directors: if Princeton can distance themselves from a graduate and a former president of both the university and the country, why can’t you distance Bowdoin from a hateful, bigoted man who your predecessors even said was “diametrically opposed to those [views] of a majority of people in Maine?”
It’s okay to admit you made a mistake. Nobody is perfect, and our school has a long history of problems: not having another Black graduate after John Brown Russwurm for 90 years, not accepting women until 1971 and a long history of sexual assault and rape on campus, to name a few. But the way to fix our problems and be better is not to excuse away our past issues and hide them in the archives. We must fully accept our mistakes and failings and do everything in our power to make the necessary changes.
As the Offer of the College says, we must “have a criticism of our own [work].” This does not just relate to the classroom. It relates to our everyday lives. We all make mistakes because we are human, but what defines us is what we do when we make a mistake. Don’t be complacent; rescind Jefferson Davis’ honorary degree and begin the healing process for our students and alumni of color. Say it with me: “Bowdoin College will not associate itself with someone who preached hate and bigotry. We made a mistake by not addressing this issue earlier, and we hope to rectify our past errors by finally announcing the rescindment of Jefferson Davis’ honorary degree.”
Jack Shane is a member of the Class of 2022.