In response to the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, many institutions faced a reckoning over their ties to slavery and racism. Trinity College was one such institution. As students and alumni detailed their own alleged experiences of racism through mediums such as Instagram, our College President felt compelled to take action. Where did she begin? President Berger-Sweeney set herself to the task of making a series of promises, setting up various committees and tasks forces, and expressing her empathy with the student body. One of her commitments was to immediately change the names of Seabury and Wheaton Halls.
In her email to the Trinity community during the summer of 2020, Berger-Sweeney stated that the College administration was committed to changing “the names of Seabury and Wheaton Halls immediately. While we do not seek to erase these two prominent figures from Trinity’s history, we do not support having our students live in residence halls that commemorate individuals who used religion to justify slavery. We will appoint a multi-constituent committee this fall to determine new names.”
However, in its rush to empathize with and support some students, President Berger-Sweeney and her administration committed itself to an action based on an incomplete set of information. While the Tripod applauds Berger-Sweeney and the College for affording thoughtful consideration in retrospect, we must be vigilante and deliberate in our actions from the start. Acting on misinformation (which was, in fact, created by students as part of a course), the administration acted without full knowledge of the facts. This is a cautionary lesson in never acting until the full scope of the situation is known and has been authoritatively cited.
In her most recent email, Berger-Sweeney explained the impetus behind the administration’s commitment to change the name of Seabury Hall, stating “that decision was based, in part, upon research indicating that Bishop Samuel Seabury, after whom one of these buildings was named, had authored a treatise espousing racist views, views that any member of our community today would reject.” As it turned out, however, that “Further research on the matter made it clear that a citation was incorrect: a treatise and sermons were misattributed.” Berger-Sweeney took responsibility, stating “I regret this error and have apologized to members of his family, some of whom are still members of our community.”
She further states that this “experience has made it clear that we must have a thorough and deliberate process for the naming (or renaming) of spaces on our campus that articulates clear and specific objectives and criteria.”
What form that process takes—and why renaming decisions are made—is a process that will require thoughtful deliberation in the weeks to come. We should not change names merely because we ran, nor should we do so without ensuring that all constituencies, especially alumni, are consulted in the process. The institution belongs to more than merely those who attend at any given moment. It belongs to an entire lineage of students with varying interests and understandings of our College’s history and the key figures who have contributed to its success.
We are also in wont of a review of our College’s history, a broad and critical inquiry which cannot be achieved through the Primus Project alone. To truly make strides and understand the facets of Trinity’s history, particular troubling moments cannot be studied in isolation. They must be viewed as part of our larger narrative, as one touchstone among many that helps us understand the limitations and realities of a particular moment in time. We cannot merely hold up the darker sides of our history at the expense of all we have to celebrate. As the Tripod has written before, as we approach our Bicentennial, we are called as never before to consider our College’s history.
In proceeding with this process, we must also be certain to get out facts right. There cannot be mistakes nor reliance on misinformation. Likewise, when students are called to study Trinity’s history, their research must be checked and checked again. When we rely on information and sourcing in the world of academia to make our case, we must be certain that the authors of a piece have invested the necessary time and have cited to the correct authority in their works. Taking student work at face value when making critical decisions, as here, can result in abject failure.
The College can and should commit resources to the study of its history that allow us to reflect on the past without the same errors experienced in the renaming process. Further, the College should take action only once it can safely say that a historical figure has committed some egregious action. Mere suppositions cannot be enough. To honor and respect our history, we must make deliberate actions as we consider contentious figures of the past.
-The Trinity Tripod