Filed Under Kurth and Clark

Clark Residence Hall: Legacy, Renaming, and Reflections on Southwestern's Past

A story that symbolizes the role of renaming in reckoning with Southwestern’s past.

The walls of Southwestern University's Clark Residence Hall echo with a history that transcends its foundation. A testament to change, the hall's renaming is not merely a tribute to Ernest L. Clark, but also a reflection on a complex and evolving narrative of segregation, integration, and acknowledgment at Southwestern.

As Southwestern University's student body burgeoned in the late 1950s, a dire need arose for additional dormitories. The pressing demand was particularly felt for female students, prompting the Board of Trustees to initiate the construction of a new women's dormitory in November 1960. Named after Ernest L. Kurth, a trustee whose financial contributions had once saved Southwestern from financial despair, the hall reflected not only the gratitude of the institution but also an uncomfortable truth: Kurth, despite his philanthropy, remained a staunch pro-segregationist. His influence cast a long shadow, factoring into the university's 11-year delay in integrating post the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Built with an investment inching close to $400,000 and designed by architect George Page, the hall, known as E. L. Kurth Residence Hall, was completed in 1962. Despite initial delays and temporary relocations, upon its opening, it significantly expanded the university's housing capacity. Located east of Laura Kuykendall Hall, it first sat at the end of a long chain of female dorms. After the 1980s, it played an even more central role on east campus, as it connected Laura Kuykendall (and later Brown Cody) to Mabee Hall by way of a lobby that has served as an important space in the lives especially of female residents.

The hall's importance, however, transcends its brick and mortar. In a move signaling evolution and retrospection, Southwestern University, in June 2020, renamed Kurth Hall to "Clark Residence Hall." This renaming honored Ernest L. Clark, Southwestern's first Black student and graduate. While the University heralded this change as an act of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and a recognition of Clark's monumental significance, a deeper examination of the site itself today suggests a more nuanced narrative.

The absence of an exterior sign bearing "Clark" and the mere presence of an internal signage reading “CLARK” hints at a subtle reluctance or oversight. Southwestern University's announcement of the renaming emphasized support for the Black community and aligned itself with racial justice. Yet, the very choice of renaming Kurth Hall, without elaborating on why this specific dormitory was chosen or addressing its namesake's pro-segregation views, raises questions. It casts a light on the complicated interplay of history, memory, and present-day actions.

Most important, the lack of transparency and community involvement in both the process of deciding to rename the building and in explaining explicitly why Kurth’s name was being removed mirrored the quiet way University handled Clark’s integration into Southwestern itself two generations before. The University's failure to candidly address Kurth's role in delaying integration in the 1950s and 1960s and address the reasoning behind choosing this dormitory for renaming reflects a missed opportunity for a transparent dialogue about the University’s past.

With plans underway to demolish Clark Hall and replace it with a larger mixed-use residence hall close to the same site, questions linger: Will its successor carry Ernest L. Clark's name? Will the University take a more introspective and transparent approach in its future endeavors to rectify its problematic histories?

As Clark Residence Hall stands now, it encapsulates a rich tapestry of Southwestern University's history, ranging from its growth challenges in the 1960s to its evolving understanding of racial justice in the present day. Its walls bear witness to past hesitations, present reconciliations, and an uncertain future, making it a poignant symbol of the University's journey through time as it has sought to deliver on its goal of creating and sustaining an inclusive culture and commemorative landscape on campus.

Images

Clark Hall Lobby, 2023 Source: creator Creator: Bettina Castillo Date: 2023
Entrance to Clark Hall from Mabee Hall, 2023 When this photograph was taken in the summer of 2023, the "R" in Clark was missing. Source: creator Creator: Bettina Castillo Date: 2023

Location

Metadata

Bettina Castillo '24, “Clark Residence Hall: Legacy, Renaming, and Reflections on Southwestern's Past,” Placing Memory, accessed May 23, 2024, https://placingmemory.southwestern.edu/items/show/77.