UVa Rotunda

The Rotunda at The University of Virginia.

On Friday, the University of Virginia will consider changing the name of a School of Medicine wing that currently honors a eugenicist who believed that slavery benefited African Americans.

Paul Brandon Barringer joined UVa’s faculty in 1889 and instituted new technology at UVa’s medical school, expanded training for future doctors and worked to establish the university’s first hospital. In 1901, the UVa Hospital opened.

In an essay, presented at a conference in 1900 in Charleston, South Carolina, Barringer wrote about what he called “the negro problem” facing the South, and suggested that since Emancipation, African Americans were reverting back to “savagery.”

“The young negro of the South, except where descended from parents of exceptional character and worth, is reverting through hereditary forces to savagery,” he wrote. “Fifty centuries of savagery in the blood cannot be held down by two centuries of forced good behavior if the controlling influences which held down his savagery are withdrawn as they have been in this case.”

Lyndsey Muehling began advocating for a name change in 2017 as a doctoral student; she is now a postdoctoral researcher.

“It just always felt wrong to me that we would hold up his name as something to be honored, when his legacy was one of harm,” she said.

Barringer went beyond advocating for now-discredited views of racial superiority. His medical research laid the intellectual foundation for discrimination in Virginia and across the country for discrimination based on race, nationality, intellectual ability and education. As chairman of the faculty from 1896 to 1903, he also oversaw efforts to hire and direct faculty who shared his views.

He was part of an effort to turn UVa into a “leading eugenics research center,” according to a 2018 report that documented the university’s support of slavery and white supremacy before the Civil War. His colleagues and contemporaries — James Cabell, Edwin Alderman, Harvey Jordan and Ivey Foreman Lewis — each advocated for racial pseudoscience that tried to rank races, and supported forced sterilization and other policies that tried to nudge society toward their elite, whiter ideal.

UVa already has removed the names of Jordan and Lewis from buildings. Alderman Library is being renovated, and officials have so far not said whether they intend to retain the first president’s name above the main entrance.

The university has a committee that considers requests to change names of buildings, but Muehling said she hopes the university also will take further action to acknowledge and atone for its promotion of eugenics.

“At some point, the university needs to officially acknowledge what they did in the past and address the harm, rather than just renaming buildings,” she said. “It’s a good first step, but not the end.”

The work of UVa’s slavery commission, which created the 2018 report, has ended, but some members have stayed on to lead a commission that will study the university during segregation. Muehling also has advocated for a mandatory course for undergraduates that covers the history of UVa, including its support of slavery, segregation and eugenics.

The Board of Visitors intends to rename the wing for Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and former leader of the Human Genome Project. He received a chemistry degree from UVa in 1970 before moving on to a doctorate in physical chemistry from Yale University and a medical degree from the University of North Carolina.

“A strong advocate for protecting the privacy of genetic information, Dr. Collins is also known for attention to ethical and legal issues in genetics and has led efforts to prohibit gene-based discrimination in insurance,” the board wrote in its memo advocating for the change.

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