Could the Merrick Name be Removed from UM Campus Buildings for Racism?
In the past year, the tearing down of statues and the renaming of buildings associated with racist historical figures has become almost commonplace, even at universities. At Princeton, for example, the name of Woodrow Wilson was removed from its public policy school, thanks to the former president’s history of supporting segregationist policies.
Now the movement has hit home with a petition to rename all facilities named after Coral Gables’ founder George Merrick or his father, Solomon, at the University of Miami. There is currently the Solomon G. Merrick Building, the Merrick Garage and George E. Merrick Drive.
The petition, started by UM alumnus Evan Kissner, reads, “Working with local Miami-based historians, our group investigated Merrick’s past and discovered much evidence confirming that George E. Merrick both held and acted upon racist and segregationist beliefs … including in his role as head of the Miami-Dade Planning Board.” The petition so far has 3,000 signatures.
Merrick advocated for a “Negro resettlement plan,” which would move Black residents to rural settlements outside the Miami city limits from what is now Overtown. The plan was approved by the Dade Planning Board in 1936. “We can’t be celebrating people who really did not believe in racial equality and had these antiquated ideas,” said Naomi Feinstein, managing editor of the school’s newspaper The Miami Hurricane, who wrote an article on the petition.
Before the petition gained momentum, Landon Coles, president of the United Black Students organization on campus, and current student government president Abigail Adeleke sent a 15-point plan to the university with requests for a global Black studies center, and more support for pre-existing programs, like the Students of Color Symposium. From that plan, UM President Julio Frenk appointed a racial justice advisor, who organized a committee to review the request to rename the Merrick buildings.
Coles is the only undergraduate student on the 12-person committee. It is also comprised of graduate, law and medical students, faculty and staff. “The purpose of the committee is not just to review the names,” Coles said, but to create a method the university can use if there is another request for a facility or building to be renamed. “Our job is to be the catalyst for that process,” said Coles.
The issue is complicated by the fact that the university would not exist without George Merrick, who donated 463 acres for the campus and pledged $5 million in mortgage-backed securities to start the school. Also, the only classroom building with a Merrick name is the Solomon G. Merrick Building. “That building is named after his father,” said Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli. “He was a preacher and had nothing to do with [George] Merrick. To take his name off is absurd.” As for George Merrick, “He lived in his times and reflected the attitudes of his time… and he founded the university.” Looking at the policies of Stanford, Princeton and Yale, the question is whether the person for whom a facility was named is inextricably associated with unacceptable behavior, or whether those behaviors are balanced by both the context of the times and positive contributions to the community.
Despite the controversy, both Feinstein and Coles are optimistic. “I think there is truly a commitment to racial justice and social justice in our campus community,” Coles said.