Campus community express their thoughts on buildings and colleges connected to slave owners

Van Meter Hall sits atop of WKU’s campus.

Jacob Latimer

WKU is hosting deliberative discussions on campus about potentially renaming three buildings that are named after people with ties to slavery and the Confederacy.

The buildings are the Potter College of Arts and Letters, the Ogden College of Science and Engineering and Van Meter Hall. They are among the oldest buildings on WKU’s campus.

WKU Historian David Lee and Professor of Geography Peggy Gripshover provided historical research documents detailing the history of the buildings and three potential solutions to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Workgroup for a deliberative workshop they did on this topic.

Potter College of Arts and Letters

The Potter College of Arts and Letters is named after Pleasant J. Potter, a Warren county native, who grew up in a slaveholding family. After marrying into another slaveholding family, Potter owned six slaves by age 30. The college was formed in 1889 and was the first building on “the Hill” of WKU.

“Public stock subscriptions had initially funded the venture but when money ran low, banker Pleasant J. Potter saved the day by contributing $5,000 to ensure completion of the school building,” Lynn E. Niedermeier wrote in “Western and the Pleasant J. Potter College: A Shared Heritage.” “In recognition of his generosity, the college was chartered bearing his name.”

Ogden College of Science and Engineering

The Ogden College of Science and Engineering is named after Robert Ogden. Like Potter, Ogden was born into a slaveholding family. After marrying a wealthy widow in 1836, Ogden invested in horses and land, bringing him great wealth. This wealth was acquired with the over 200 slaves that Ogden and his children collectively owned. The Ogden College opened in 1877 and was named after Ogden because of a $50,000 trust fund he put in his will to fund the university.

Van Meter Hall

Van Meter Hall was named after Charles J. Van Meter. Van Meter grew up in a slave- holding family, where he assisted his father in managing the family farms, which used slave labor. Later in Van Meter’s life, he served as a contractor in the Confederate Army. Van Meter Hall is one of the oldest buildings on WKU’s campus and was built in 1901.

The building was named after Van Meter because of donations he made towards the construction. The original Van Meter Hall was built to replace the Southern Normal School & Business College, which burned down in 1900. The current Van Meter Hall was built in 1911 and served as an auditorium with classrooms and conference rooms.

A committee was recently started to be- gin a dialogue on this topic across campus. The first meeting was held earlier this month and introduced three potential solutions to the issue: keep the names the same and open a multi-disciplinary center for historical research along with a memorial fund for the children of Jonesville, completely remove the names from the buildings or replace them with names that connect with WKU’s history.

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Workgroup will be holding another virtual meeting on the topic on Nov. 19 from 4:30- 6:30 p.m. It is open to all students, faculty and staff.

Jacob Latimer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jacoblatimer_.