Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Foolish Friday: Fieldhouse Foolishness and History Hijinks at Indiana U

November 13th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

The average of the (black) race as to intelligence, economic status and industry is so far below the white average that it seems to me futile to build up hope for a great future.

–Ora Wildermuth, and Indiana University trustee from 1938-1949, in a 1948 letter to IU president Herman B. Wells

[T]he Wildermuth name needs to be removed once and for all – not dressed up with the name of an honorable man who cannot object.

–IU Alumnus Russ Bridenbaugh, in a letter to the Indiana Daily Student

In 2007 the Indiana Daily Student newspaper brought to light a series of letters in which the late Ora Wildermuth, an IU trustee during the 1940s, expresses his racist feelings toward African Americans. In addition the quote at the beginning of this post, Wildermuth also wrote openly about his opposition to integrating the University residence halls, stating, “I am and shall always remain absolutely and utterly opposed to social intermingling of the colored race with the white.

Once the letters came to light, IU president Michael McRobbie asked the All University Committee on Names to take up the question of whether or not to change the name of the Ora L. Wildermuth Intramural Center, in light of the former trustee’s racist views.

After lengthy consideration, the Committee on Names has decided to change the name of the building in question to the William L. Garrett-Ora L. Wildermuth Fieldhouse.

William L. Garrett was the first African American basketball player at IU and the first African American to play basketball in the Big Ten conference. He was deeply respected not only for his extraordinary skill on the court, but for his strength of character, this at a time when he was regularly subject to racist taunts from both players and fans at other Big Ten schools. Garrett died of a heart condition in 1974, at the age of 45.

The Committee on Names decision to renamed the athletic center for both Wildermuth and Garrett was unanimous. The idea of simply removing Wildermuth’s name was rejected, based on the committee’s belief that it would unfair to judge him and his beliefs by today’s standards, this according to IU Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer J. Terry Clapacs. Clapacs elaborated on this opinion in a recent IU press release:

As wrong as he was, his views on race were not that uncommon at that time in history. Even our Armed Forces were segregated in those days. What is remarkable is that our society has changed so much in just 60 years.

This is utter foolishness. By the time Wildermuth was penning his racist letters to the IU administration, African Americans and white advocates for social justice had been fighting for the end of segregation for over 50 years. To call Wildermuth’s beliefs unacceptable is to judge him by the standards of his own generation and at least two generations before him. The fact that then IU President Herman continued down the path of integration despite the objection of at least one of his trustees illustrates this very fact; many whites were just as aware as their Black brothers and sisters of the folly of the “separate-but-equal” doctrine.

If IU’s Committee on Names wishes to retain the Wildermuth name, so be it; but they should not hide their true motivations for this decision behind the mask of a weak, ahistorical argument.

Bill Garrett in his IU basketball uniform

(Source: IU Newsroom)

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Black History, Black Students, Current Events, Higher Education, Indiana University, race, William L. Garrett

2 Responses

  1. clnmike

    I dont know how I feel about it, I see your arguement, but i like the fact that you have the two names up there, representing how far the school came.

  2. Ajuan Mance

    This is a good point, and the Committee on Names hopes that the new name of the fieldhouse will be education to future generations of students.

    I believe that the committee will be voting on the text of a plaque that will be placed on the fieldhouse to explain the name and its history and meaning.