With a wing named for him since 1936, the UVA hospital honors a man who was fundamental in the university’s eugenics movement, and perhaps best known for his popular address titled “The American Negro: His Past and Future,” in which he argued that African Americans benefited from slavery.
A group of local activists wants his name—Paul Barringer—off the building.
“We are at a critical time in UVA’s history, where we must acknowledge our past, but also make deliberate decisions about which values and names we elevate,” says Lyndsey Muehling, a member of Cville Comm-UNI-ty, a civic engagement and science education nonprofit made up of university and community members.
She adds, “I believe that Paul Barringer doesn’t represent the values and vision of UVA today, or its direction for the future.”
The hospital’s website calls Barringer a medical school faculty member instrumental in the hospital’s founding, and while that may be true, today some of his beliefs smack of white supremacy.
The man who also served as the university’s chairman of faculty from 1895-1903 taught several students who went on to have key roles in the famously unethical Tuskegee Study, in which poor black men were denied treatment for syphilis without their knowledge or consent, according to Muehling, an immunology doctoral candidate at the university.
“Barringer himself had previously suggested that syphilis infection in the black population was highest due to genetic inferiority,” she adds.
Muehling wasn’t aware of Barringer’s history until she attended an event at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on July 8, 2017—the same day the Klan came to town.
“That really gave me a shock because, although I do not work in the Barringer wing, I had worked on a project in that building and had never heard anything about him,” she says. She also credits her knowledge to research by Preston Reynolds, a physician-historian at the university, whom she heard speak about eugenics at a post-August 12 event.
In a recent collection of essays by UVA faculty called Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity, Reynolds says that during Barringer’s tenure, blacks were denied medical services and subjected to racist scientific investigations.
“Barringer’s solutions to the ‘Negro problem’ were to segregate blacks (moving them into neighborhoods further away from whites), to restrict interaction between the two races through Jim Crow laws and regulations, and to transfer education at all levels from black teachers to white teachers,” writes Reynolds, adding that Barringer believed blacks shouldn’t be educated beyond their roles as laborers and artisans, and that he once said, “every doctor, lawyer, teacher, or other ‘leader’ in excess of the immediate needs of his own people is an antisocial product, a social menace.”
Muehling says she and other Cville Comm-UNI-ty members will soon write an open letter and petition to remove Barringer’s name, and then will perhaps take aim at other figures with ties to the university and controversial histories.
UVA Health System is aware of the community concerns, and spokesperson Eric Swensen said the health system will address the issue. “The university is updating its naming policy; once that update is complete, we plan to follow the new process and seek Board of Visitors approval to change the name,” he said.
Another once-celebrated, now-controversial figure, as reported recently in the Cavalier Daily, is known white supremacist and eugenicist Edwin Alderman, the university president from 1904-1931, and namesake of Alderman Library.
“The term ‘white supremacy’ did not have the pejorative ring it has today,” says UVA assistant history professor Sarah Milov. “White supremacy was so mainstream, especially in Alderman’s milieu, that nobody would have thought twice about using the term. Indeed, it would have been a tremendous scandal if Alderman had been a secret integrationist or even an egalitarian.”
Milov says Alderman was a “progressive segregationist” who believed in “absolute social separateness” to facilitate social advancement for whites and blacks.
Alderman held similar views to Barringer on education, and believed poor African Americans should be educated for physical labor, while middle-class blacks could be educated as teachers, doctors, and nurses for other black people, according to the historian.
UVA became a leader of eugenic education under Alderman, who hired many prominent eugenicists, says Milov.
“Alderman embodies the duality and contradiction within a lot of UVA’s history, starting with Jefferson,” she says. “UVA is a place that has advanced education and scholarship, but for much of its history has done so in a way that upholds and solidifies race hierarchy.”
In an upcoming renovation of the library, Milov hopes the university will also consider changing its name. UVA is already reckoning with its history, and the planned President’s Commission on UVA in the Age of Segregation will continue the work of coming to terms with the difficult aspects of the university’s past, says commission co-chair and assistant dean Kirt von Daacke.
As for Charlottesville’s recent white nationalist events and the August 11, 2017, tiki-torch march across Grounds?
Says Milov, “Alderman would likely agree with some of the white supremacist race theory of someone like Richard Spencer. However, Alderman valued order above all and would not have appreciated open flames on campus.”