Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Miami Students Push For Name Changes Honoring Freedom Summer Martyrs

Scott Kissell
Miami University

Miami University's board of trustees has adopted a new way for the school to honor and recognize three Freedom Summer civil rights workers who lost their lives in Mississippi in 1964.

The Associated Student Government put forward a plan for Miami to name the common lobby/lounge areas in three of its newer dormitories after James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the plan Friday morning.

"Recognizing that a part of our campus ... played such a monumental role in the civil rights movement is something that's really important to not only history but Miami's history in particular," says Jaylen Perkins, student body president and a Miami senior. "We recognize that that's something that our students should not go through a Miami University experience without knowing; that this history is actually here and took place on the same grounds that we walk around every day."

Some 800 college students converged on Western College for Women in Oxford for two weeks in June 1964 to learn non-violent techniques, how to teach in freedom schools and other skills needed before heading south as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. Civil rights workers Chaney and Schwerner, and Freedom Summer volunteer Goodman participated in training at what is now part of Miami's Western College campus.

They disappeared shortly after returning to Mississippi to investigate the burning of a black church - one of many that summer across the state. Their bodies were found six weeks later. They'd been shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan and buried in a shallow grave.

Student Senator Vada Stephens, a sophomore and one of the authors of the proposal, says student government polled students and found some weren't aware of Miami's connection to the Freedom Summer voter registration efforts.

"To me what's important is getting the word out there; getting the knowledge out there. Getting our students thinking about the pioneers and people who have paved the way for the type of freedoms that exist today such as freedom to vote and being able to register and have equal protection under the law," says Stephens.

The student government proposal was vetted by university President Greg Crawford, the Western Alumni Association and other university committees, according to Perkins. He says it envisions placing plaques, portraits and informational signage - or some combination thereof - in each of the lobbies of Beechwoods, Hillcrest and Stonebridge halls in hopes of generating conversations and learning.

"Putting up a plaque or picture of some sort causes those conversations to be organically had in the residence halls, in a place that you're supposed to call 'home,' " Perkins explains. "It's a way for us to intentionally make sure that our students are recognizing the history ... that took place in that exact area during Freedom Summer of 1964."

Stephens would love to see the residence halls themselves renamed in the future, however, he calls this a momentous step.

"My biggest goal is that rather than a memorial initiative, it be more of a celebratory initiative," he says. "Celebrating the history of the civil rights movement; the history of people of color; and also the great work that Miami University has done thus far in assisting in our efforts to consistently re-examine our inclusive mindset."

Miami University erected a monument in 2000 memorializing Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and recognizing the work of Freedom Summer volunteers. Stephens worries some students may walk by it without realizing its importance. Naming the dorm common areas, he says, will promote more inclusiveness and awareness.

"We could be doing more as a university to promote the cross-cultural awareness of all groups of people by having our buildings and lounge spaces and study spaces reflect those ideas and goals," he says.

Signage could be in place by the spring semester, according to the university.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.