Richmond law school is latest to drop slaveholding namesake

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
  • Since 1920, the school had officially been named for a tobacco businessman and donor who owned slaves
  • At least five law schools have removed references to historic figures in the past two years

Sept 26 (Reuters) - The University of Richmond is removing an early donor from the official name of its law school after discovering that he owned slaves, marking the latest in a string of law school name changes tied to the conduct of historical figures.

The university’s board of trustees on Friday unanimously voted to change the law school’s official name from T.C. Williams School of Law to the University of Richmond School of Law. Former namesake Thomas C. Williams, Sr. operated two Virginia-based tobacco companies in the 1800s and owned and managed slaves in both his professional and personal capacity, according to newly uncovered government documents and historical newspaper records.

"We recognize that some may be disappointed or disagree with this decision," university president Kevin Hallock said in a Sept. 24 email to students. "We also recognize the role the Williams family has played here and respect the full and complete history of the institution."

Also on Friday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill renaming the University of California Hastings College of the Law as the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco. That long-debated change could go into effect as early as Jan. 1, 2023 and eliminates reference to Serranus Hastings—a former California Supreme Court justice who founded the law school in 1878.

The law school had endorsed the change in July and state lawmakers signed off in August. Historians say Hastings orchestrated the killings of Native Americans in order to remove them from ranch land he purchased in Northern California.

The transition at Richmond Law will likely be muted. University officials said that people have already been referring to the school as the University of Richmond School of Law for 20 years. But it was officially the T.C. Williams School of Law since 1920, after Williams’ family made several donations that helped establish the law school.

The university’s board of trustees in March adopted principles under which no building, program or entity can be named for any person who owned slaves or participated in slavery

At least five law schools have changed names, renamed buildings, or removed other references to historic figures in the past two years.

Cleveland State University is poised to change the name of its law school to remove a reference to John Marshall, who was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. The school is currently named the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, but the former justice has come under new scrutiny for his judicial record upholding slavery and his ownership of a large number of slaves.

The University of Illinois at Chicago School of Law dropped Marshall from its name in May 2021, after nearly a year of discussion among students and alumni.

The University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 2020 removed the name of attorney John Henry Boalt from its main building. Boalt was a leading proponent of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School has said it will remove the name of former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Roger Brooke Taney from a limestone medallion on the exterior of one of its buildings. Taney wrote the 1857 majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which upheld slavery.

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Reporting by Karen Sloan

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Thomson Reuters

Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com