© 2023 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Major tech upgrade underway at WGLT. Thanks for your patience!

ISU To Change Watterson Towers House Names Over Slavery History

Watterson Towers residence hall at ISU
ISU now considers the naming conventions for Watterson Towers floor groups to be problematic because of involvement in the slave trade by those historical figures.

Illinois State University said Thursday it will rename floors in the Watterson Towers residence hall in the wake of nationwide upheaval and a renewed dialogue on race and history.

Watterson Towers opened in 1968 and every five floors in both towers are called a "house." The university named those houses for the nation's first 10 secretaries of state: Van Buren, Clay, Marshall, Madison, Adams, Pickering, Monroe, Randolph, Smith, and Jefferson. Eight out of the 10 were involved in slavery. Several would be elected president after serving as secretary of state.

“The path seeking social justice has circled back to the historical artifacts that continue to reflect our country’s pattern of intolerance and systemic racism,” said ISU President Larry Dietz. “Over the past several months, America has re-examined many symbols of bigotry--statues, monuments, flags, plaques, and works of art--and has removed them in a mass demonstration of support for equality and social justice.”

Interim Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion Doris Houston said stripping the names is a positive step toward reflecting the university's core value of inclusion.

Watterson Towers Floor Plan
Credit Illinois State University
Illinois State University
This Watterson Towers floor plan shows the houses named for Secretaries of State whose personal involvement in slavery detracts from their standing.

“Asking students to live in places that carry the names of those who represent centuries of oppression and systemic injustice becomes part of the trauma that racism inflicts on people every day,” said Houston.

Opponents of removing such commemorative names and statues have frequently argued the historical artifacts should not be erased because the contributions of those (mostly) men were and remain valid historical markers, symbols of the national culture, and icons of American identity.

Houston noted the understanding of national culture has become more nuanced and there are certainly other figures equally important that have not received such iconography.

“I don’t know that it would be considered erasing history, but certainly revisiting history. The history that all of us have been exposed to has been from the point of view essentially of white male leaders. It’s not a full history that represents the contributions of women, individuals from diverse sexual orientations, and individuals of color. That history, quite frankly, for many years has been erased. So, this really is an opportunity for us to look within our selves as a nation and revisit history,” said Houston.

For those distressed at the apparent rejection of a national image they were reared to embrace, Dietz noted the U.S. is a relatively young country in the world, “hardly an adolescent in the whole world culture” and these reconsiderations are signs of growing pains.

“The best thing we can do is learn from our history and also look to the future and be a lot more sensitive to the context we are living in now. Who knows, 40 years from now people may look back and say hey they missed this. They should have taken a different tack on something else. I think these symbols are very important. Language is very important. I think once you find something that needs to be fixed you do your best to correct it and move on,” said Dietz.

The process of change was underway by University Housing Services when a petition started from former Watterson Towers residential assistants asking for the houses to be renamed.

“I am proud to see that we are moving in the same direction,” said Dietz. “Our students and alumni using their voice is a celebration of the University’s core values of diversity and inclusion, and civic engagement.”

ISU does have several rooms and buildings named for diverse figures in the campus and community. ISU said the University Naming Committee is working toward new floor designations with changes scheduled to be in place in the fall.

The entire Watterson Towers complex was named for a beloved professor on campus and that name will not change.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.