“Reclaiming, Renaming, Repairing”
Commemoration Information Panel

(Originally presented live and recorded on Nov. 9, 2020)

Find out why commemorative namings are so important, particularly in supporting the broader work toward diversity, equity and inclusion at JMU. Hear more about the Campus History Committee’s charges and projects and the truth-telling/reparative approach the committee is using.

Moderators: Meg Mulrooney, Chair of the Campus History Committee and Assoc. Vice Provost for University Programs; Diane Phoenix-Neal, Asst. Professor of Music and member of Sisters in Session

Guest: Brent Lewis, Assoc. Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Panelists: Gianluca De Fazio, Assoc. Professor of Justice Studies and member of Faculty Senate; Christopher B. Jones (’00), Harrisonburg City Councilman; Norman Jones III, student representative to the JMU Board of Visitors; Spencer Law, JMU student; Diane Strawbridge (’80, ’20M), Executive Director for Student Access and Inclusion


JMU’s current commemorative landscape includes nearly 100 named buildings as well as many named rooms, spaces, roads, centers, and other elements. Many of the buildings were named decades ago. The committee’s analysis revealed that, of the named buildings and as of Nov. 12, 2020,

• a majority (37) recognize white men,
• 8 recognize white couples,
• 8 recognize white women, and
• 2 recognize Black men.

Information about the university’s current criteria for naming can be found here. The Campus History Committee developed the following criteria to guide its recommendations.

Criteria for the committee’s naming recommendations 

JMU’s Campus History Committee wishes to use names and naming as a means of building a welcoming environment that projects our values for an inclusive, diverse and equitable society. These names should come out of a process by participants who have given serious consideration and scholarly research to identifying these names. The criteria used to identify the names to be considered for this honor should:

  1. Acknowledge extraordinary and/or trailblazing service to the university. The honor should be given to an individual, group or organization whose service to the university has positively changed the university, impacted the larger community, and brought national or international recognition to James Madison University. It should recognize first and founding organizers whose creations and developments have led the way for others, contributed significantly to an existing or new field of inquiry, or brought distinction to themselves by the excellence and longevity of their service. 

  2. Recognize a valued association with the university. The honor should be given to an individual, group or organization that has a significant position in the university, has given outstanding philanthropic support to the university, or has been the recipient of honorary degrees, special commendations or awards. The naming should bring honor and distinction to the University because the honoree’s association will be lasting and consistent with the traditions and purposes of the University.

  3. Commemorate the contributions of significant historical figures whose lives impacted the local, regional, national or international community. The honor should be given to a well-known individual whose work shaped history for the good and left a lasting and honorable legacy that our student could use as models for their own lives.

  4. Recognize heretofore hidden figures who have made major contributions to the academic and/or local community.  Because many of these individuals were invisible or ignored because of systemic racism or implicit bias, their contributions and achievements remained hidden or buried. Their inclusion in the naming process will signal our intention to not only reflect our time-honored traditions but also build a living, inclusive history.

  5. Acknowledge the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion in making decisions about identifying potential honorees. We are called upon to create a commemorative landscape that better represents the diverse backgrounds of students, faculty, staff, community, and alumni by recognizing overlooked contributions to the campus and community, maintaining an inclusive naming and renaming process as part of the naming policy, and, in all ways, making the entire process transparent and meaningful for future generations who will join the JMU family.

Examples of people under consideration for nomination

The committee has received hundreds of nominations for future commemorations and has conducted contextual research related to local, state, national, and campus history. Additional nominations may still be submitted until Friday, November 20, 2020 using campushistory@jmu.edu. Public comments and questions about this project are also welcome.

A few of the many individuals whose histories and contributions are under consideration include the following:

Lillian_Jennings_250_x_174.jpgLillian Pegues Jennings (1926-2016). To diversify hiring in compliance with federal equal opportunity requirements (despite Virginia’s continued efforts to resist school desegregation), Madison College hired its first three African American faculty members in 1974. They were: Flossie Love, coach of women’s track and field and instructor of physical education; Sam Benson, part-time art instructor; and Lillian Jennings, assistant dean of the School of Education and professor of psychology and education. Jennings was likely the first Black administrator at Madison.

Born May 24, 1926, in Ohio, Jennings fulfilled her childhood desire to become a school teacher after attending Youngstown State University and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She later received a master’s degree from Edinboro University and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. With a research focus on teacher preparation, Jennings joined the faculty of Madison College in 1974 as Assistant Dean of the School of Education and professor of Psychology and Education. Because of her practical and scholarly expertise, in 1984 she became the first Black woman appointed to the Harrisonburg School Board. Jennings served on the board until August 1988, when she took a research leave from JMU to study education policy and school law at the University of California, Los Angeles. Jennings retired from her position as Associate Dean of the College of Education and Human Resources in 1989. Having attained emeritus faculty status, she moved permanently to California, where she published three books about her ancestors who were enslaved in South Carolina. She died in December 2016 in North Las Vegas, Nevada, at the age of 90.

Robert_Walker_Lee_250_x_411.jpgRobert “Walker” Lee (1875*-1929). African Americans were integral to the success of the State Normal and Industrial School for Women (renamed Madison College in 1938 and James Madison University in 1977). All faculty, administrators and students were white, but the staff members, who performed work essential to the functioning of the school, included a few Black people.

Robert “Walker” Lee was employed at the State Normal from 1909 to 1928, when he provided janitorial and maintenance services in Mountain Hall (formerly Maury Hall, Maury Science Hall, Science Hall). As far as we know, he was the first Black employee of the school; the second was Page S. Mitchell, and others’ full names are unknown, as they are listed only by first names or nicknames in institutional records. Scrapbooks, yearbooks and other sources document many of Lee’s interactions with the faculty, staff and students.

Born in 1875 or 1885*, Lee attended segregated schools in Rockingham County. He and his wife, Ida, had seven children, and he commuted from their home in Bridgewater to the Harrisonburg campus, where he lived during the week along with several other Black employees who provided additional core services. He was a Mason and a member of the historic Ames Methodist Church in Rockingham County. When Lee died in 1929, his obituary noted that his funeral drew one of the largest crowds ever seen in Bridgewater. His descendants still live in this area and celebrate his memory.

*Lee’s grave marker says 1885. His death certificate and other documents list the date as 1875.

Zenda_250_x_154.jpgZenda (c. 1869-1925). Originally called Athens, the rural African American community at Zenda came together near Linville, Virginia, as newly emancipated families settled on land donated in 1869 for their use. By 1877 Zenda’s one-room chapel also served as a school and gathering place. This is where Lucy F. Simms, one of the most influential African American teachers in this area, began her career. (Want to learn more about her and her legacy? Visit the “Celebrating Simms” site.)

Mostly farmers, Zenda’s residents placed a high value on education, and by 1880 their literacy rate had increased substantially. A new school, built in 1882, testified to their success. During the Great Migration of the early 1900s, however, many families left Zenda for opportunities in larger towns and cities including Harrisonburg, the county seat. By 1925 the school had closed. Today Long’s Chapel, the original building, is all that remains of a once-thriving freedmen’s community. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


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