Following more than a year-and-a-half of discussion, the State University of New York at New Paltz is poised to rename buildings in one of its complexes. The College Council voted unanimously this week to assign new names to six buildings whose names are connected with slave owners. The college’s president supports the move.
The six buildings at issue are named for Huguenot families who were the first European settlers in New Paltz in 1678, and who owned slaves. Debate surfaced in August 2017, during a time when the nation became engaged in further discourse about removing Confederate statues and changing building names that commemorate or memorialize the era of slavery in America.
A study group of College Council members, faculty, staff, students, alumni and a community member/Historic Huguenot Street Board member recommended the new names, drawing on more than 3,000 survey responses. SUNY New Paltz President Dr. Donald Christian says he feels good about the prolonged, inclusive process on a difficult issue that has led to changing the names of the six Hasbrouck Complex buildings.
“Maybe more so even than changing the building names, the contemplative space that we’re talking about designing to more fully educate students and visitors to campus about the complexity of our history, shared history, much more openly and comprehensively than we have done will perhaps be the bigger outcome,” Christian says.
He offers further details.
“I mean, I have ideas in mind for what that might look like. I’ve formed a working group of faculty, staff, students — faculty with different expertise in educating about race, expertise in set design, public art and sculpture, graphic design. So we’ve got a lot of expertise on there,” says Christian. “The group is already talking about not only a design for the contemplative space, but also how we might integrate that into programming to make full educational use of it in the future.”
That working group was formed about a month ago. Historic Huguenot Street Executive Director Liselle LaFrance says considering a contemplative space and other ways to present a more complete history of the campus and the community is a positive step.
“It’s a little ironic, I’m kind of of two minds because, while I understand how disturbing it was to have the names on those buildings for so many people, it was actually the presence of those names that led to the community-wide discussion about a very important topic. And the other thing that I hope comes out of it is that when the Huguenots arrived, the abhorrent institution of slavery was already well established. I’m making my way down from Albany where the Rensselaers and Schuylers had long embraced that system as a means of economic gain,” LaFrance says. “And so I hope that a broader discussion actually emerges from this kind of parochial view of what was clearly a disturbing period in American history that continues to have its impact today.”
Asked whether the name changes will strain the college’s partnership with Historic Huguenot Street, Christian says the two are great partners.
“For the last several years, they have been making a lot of efforts to tell the Huguenot history more broadly and comprehensively, including the linkage to slavery,” says Christian. “So I’m aware that a lot of the descendants of the Huguenots are disappointed in the name change. We hope we can continue connecting with those people and those families.”
Eli Basch, SUNY New Paltz College Council interim chairperson, spoke during the Council’s March 6 meeting.
“It was hard and difficult with a lot of bumps in the road, but I think the ultimate product is going to be better for the campus community, better for the students and, I think, better going forward as an institution because it will welcome diversity, it will help with a comfort level in the students and, by the same token, give respect to the history of where we are,” says Basch.
Meantime the Board of Trustees must approve the new names. Again, President Christian.
“We’re unable to get to the Board of Trustees this month. They don’t meet in April,” says Christian. “And so we’re hoping that we can take a, have the trustees consider a single resolution both to change the names and to assign these new names to the buildings at their May meeting.”
The approved names carry local geographic significance. Vincent Cozzolino, a member of the SUNY New Paltz College Council, described one of the recommended names during the council’s March 6 meeting.
“And be it further resolved that the dining hall be renamed Peregrine Dining Hall to commemorate the recovery of the peregrine falcon from its virtual eradication in eastern North America in the middle of the 20th century due to pesticide poisoning, symbolizing that positive change is possible,” Cozzolino says.
The others are Shawangunk Hall, Awosting Hall, Minnewaska Hall, Mohonk Hall and Ashokan Hall.