A poster is staked into the ground in front of a brick building that is marked with a sign read "F. Edward Hebert." The poster provides a link to an "equity, diversity & inclusion climate survey."
A poster advertising an “equity, diversity & inclusion climate survey” is staked into the ground in front of Hébert Hall at Tulane University on Friday, October 28, 2022. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite

Students and faculty called on Tulane to scrub a segregationist’s name from its history building. Administrators say their hands are tied.

In late September, the historian Justin Wolfe opened an email that had landed in the inboxes of Tulane University students and faculty, its subject line unassuming: “A Message from President Fitts.” The email outlined the many steps the university, a predominantly white institution located in the mostly Black city of New Orleans, had taken in recent years to advance racial equity, diversion, and inclusion, listing among those measures a presidential commission, a plan, a strategy, a project, and a task force.

But there was one thing at which the school had already failed, Tulane President Michael Fitts admitted. The university was abandoning efforts to rename F. Edward Hébert Hall, the stately brick building currently housing the university’s history department and its Africana studies program, despite a recommendation from Tulane’s Building Naming Task Force

The long-existing building had taken on the name of Hébert in 1979, to honor the 20th century New Orleans congressman — who attended Tulane and who was known for his time on the Armed Services Committee and his capacity for ensuring a flow of pork projects to his home state — after the school agreed to accept a donation from Hébert’s foundation to cover renovation costs. The Hébert name, under the agreement, was to remain “in perpetuity.” 

Despite negotiations with Hébert’s family, Tulane “was unable to reach an agreement to modify the legal requirement that Hébert’s name remain on the building,” Fitts wrote. A separate university research facility in Belle Chasse, named for Hébert in the 1960s after he facilitated the transfer of the 500 acres on which it sits from the military to Tulane, would also retain his name. Instead, the university was opting to “prominently feature contextual facts regarding the history of their naming,” as its task force had suggested. 

After touting Hébert’s credentials, including his time as an investigative journalist exposing government corruption, the message from the president devoted less than two sentences to why students and faculty had spent years agitating for his name to be stripped from campus: Hébert “was also known for his support of segregation.”

Portrait of Congressman F. Edward Hébert holding up papers on May 12, 1966. Credit: Marion S. Trikosko / Library of Congress

When Wolfe, who had researched Hébert’s beliefs, values, and actions for the task force, read the email, he felt angry. And disgusted. Like many of his colleagues at Tulane, Wolfe found Hébert at odds with Tulane’s mission and values. 

In his report, Wolfe had drawn a clear conclusion. “A review of his life and politics, however, reveals that Hébert believed in white supremacy and worked aggressively to undo efforts at establishing racial equality and discredit those who supported it,” he wrote. 

Wolfe noted Hébert’s political relationships with other Dixiecrats in Congress and, closer to home, with stalwart segregationist Leander Perez; he quoted Hébert calling himself one of the last “unreconstructed rebels”; he made note of Hébert’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Hébert’s comments following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death that “when you play with fire you get burned.” 

Tulane’s failure to include the broader community at the end of the decision-making process has bred mistrust, Wolfe said. Students and faculty critiquing the administration’s response say the lack of transparency — the email doesn’t detail what Tulane offered the Hébert family or point out that the separate Belle Chasse facility doesn’t appear to be bound by the same naming agreement — belies the school’s on-paper commitment to building a more diverse and inclusive community. 

Some want the administration to dedicate the money it might have used to pay back the Hébert Foundation to other causes. Others parsing the message wondered why the administration didn’t at least condemn Hébert’s segregationist worldview in its announcement. “The letter was just so tone-deaf,” Wolfe said. “It felt as a gutshot to the work that is supposedly being done on these issues.”

Archival documents from the late 1970s and early 1980s indicate that the Hébert Foundation gave somewhere around $440,000 to the school at the time — about $1.5 million to $2 million in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. The agreement between Tulane and the foundation required the school to name the building after Hébert “in perpetuity,” according to a letter from a representative of the foundation to the university’s president in 1979. (In his research, Wolfe also found some overlap between two members of the foundation’s advisory committee who served on Tulane’s board during or shortly before the agreement, he said.)

Fitts told the University Senate last month that the negotiations with the family were private, but the family and the university had disagreed over how much money the school needed to return based on the value of the original gift, according to the Senate’s meeting minutes. “So, we stepped back and decided that those resources, i.e., that money, would be better spent on [equity, diversity, and inclusion] efforts on this campus,” Fitts said. He declined to provide the group with more details, citing legal constraints. (Tulane typically doesn’t divulge details of gift agreements because it is a private university, Michael Strecker, a university spokesperson, told Verite.)

Tulane declined an interview request, directing a reporter back to Fitts’ original email, where he describes an ongoing effort to name on-campus spaces for “Tulane Trailblazers.” The message mentions a university commission was working on plans to “identify naming opportunities for programs and/or interior spaces within Hébert Hall that honor individuals from underrepresented communities who have played prominent roles in our university’s history.” The school is also searching for someone to lead the Tulane History Project, an effort to provide a detailed accounting of the university’s historical relationship to race, including slavery and segregation.

Tulane is among many colleges and universities trying to reconcile their histories in the 21st century, announcing ambitious initiatives to probe what are often the very foundations of their institutions and to right decades- and centuries-long wrongs

Some Tulane students remain skeptical of the school’s dedication to the project. For Doxey Kamara, a junior who serves as the community liaison for the school’s Black Student Union, the failure to remove the Hébert name cheapens previous work done by the university, such as the removal of an iconic campus symbol revealed to be a slavery-era plantation bell. “I think they’re more focused on placating than actually getting things done right now,” Kamara said.

History faculty members at Tulane mince no words in their assessments of Hébert. “Terrible views, terrible person,” said Laura Rosanne Adderley, a historian of comparative slavery. “Many others changed their tune, but he did not,” said Randy Sparks, who teaches Southern history. 

Some professors wanted the university to take the family to court. Shortly after the announcement, the department passed a resolution refusing to help the administration “contextualize” Hébert’s name.

A sign reading “F. Edward Hebert” stands in front of Tulane University’s Hébert Hall on Friday, October 28, 2022. The building houses the school’s history department and Africana studies program. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite

Calls to remove Hébert’s name date to when university leaders dedicated the building to him in 1979. (At the dedication ceremony, both the Archbishop of New Orleans and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe spoke, signaling the respect an ailing Hébert, who would die of congestive heart failure at the end of the year, still commanded; Tulane administrators had also considered asking Gerald Ford and Walter Cronkite to be speakers, per one document.) 

But students at the time opposed the naming over Hébert’s opposition to civil rights, circulating a petition that garnered more than 500 signatures. “I think that it is a great mistake to try and apply political criteria to accepting gifts,” said Sheldon Hackney, Tulane’s president at the time, in response. 

Students had been raising awareness for years when, in the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement took hold of college campuses, faculty members hung a banner unofficially renaming the building after Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a historian of slavery and the African diaspora with ties to New Orleans and Tulane, in what Sparks called “a provocation.” Shortly thereafter, Fitts said he was asking the school’s new Building Naming Task Force to examine Hébert Hall.

Around that time, the school’s Black Student Union demanded the administration allocate more resources and change policies to better serve its non-white students and workers, from increasing faculty diversity and requiring de-escalation training for campus police to town-gown initiatives like supporting local Black-owned vendors. In recent years, Black doctors have also confronted Tulane’s medical school over a history of institutional racism.

Another group, Students Organizing Against Racism, or SOAR, has called on Tulane to examine other buildings on campus, such as Alcee Fortier Hall, named after a professor who researchers found promulgated the South’s “Lost Cause” narrative through his documentation of folktales by former slaves, whom he deemed “childlike.” 

And students still want Tulane to fully address the school’s namesake, Paul Tulane, a merchant whose dry-goods trading was tied to slave labor, who gave generously to Confederate causes, and whose 1884 donation transformed the school from a public university to a private one “for white young persons,” as he wrote.

The symbolic nature of the Hébert name still has consequences for the students who learn inside Hébert Hall’s classrooms, said Wash Fields, a senior involved with SOAR. 

“It has a large impact on how someone feels welcome on a campus,” Fields said. “It is hard to acknowledge that you are going across a campus that was explicitly built to exclude you, and that you are having classes in a building named after somebody who would hate the fact that you are here.”

In the recent scrutiny over the Hébert name, no groundswell of public support has materialized for the former congressman. “I don’t think I’ve met a single person who supports keeping the name,” said Kamara, who also works as an editor for Tulane’s student newspaper, The Hullabaloo, which has led news coverage of the issue.

Still, the university’s inability to come to an agreement with the Hébert Foundation — which lists in its most recent state filings Hébert’s only daughter and three of his grandchildren as officers — suggests his living relatives might remain loyal to his legacy. 

Bo Duhé, a grandson who is listed as the Hébert Foundation’s registered agent, did not respond to requests for comment. Efforts to reach Hébert’s daughter, Dawn Hébert, through publicly listed phone numbers were unsuccessful.

“As we get into the 20th century, we get into living memory,” observed Kirt von Daacke, who serves as the managing director of the consortium Universities Studying Slavery.

A flyer tacked onto a bulletin board inside Hébert Hall at Tulane University reads, “DID YOU KNOW? This building is named for F. Edward Hebert (1901-1979), a lifelong white supremacist and segregationist.” Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite
Flyers bearing a quotation from F. Edward Hébert, the former U.S. Congressman from Louisiana, supporting segregation are visible inside Hébert Hall at Tulane University on Friday, October 28, 2022.

As of late October, no signs of the promised institutional contextualization were visible in the building. Instead, anonymous flyers establishing Hébert’s views on race and civil rights papered bulletin boards and office doors. “DID YOU KNOW?” one read. “This building is named for F. Edward Hebert (1901-1979), a lifelong white supremacist and segregationist.” Another, observing that Hébert voted against the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, stated plainly: “he was a racist.” A third quoted Hébert: “I own my own political soul, and it is not for sale for any political patronage or favor. I am definitely, emphatically and positively in favor of segregation, and opposed to integration, period.”

The contextualization efforts for the building will begin in the spring, Strecker said.

In a sparsely decorated wing of the building, a touchscreen monitor was mounted above a trash can, a 21st-century solution to another stipulation from the Foundation — a display honoring Hébert in the building. (Hébert’s family reclaimed the physical items in the display in recent years in exchange for the digital setup, members of the history department recalled.) 

A touchscreen monitor mounted on a wall inside of Hébert Hall at Tulane University displays a portrait of F. Edward Hébert on Friday, October 28, 2022. Credit: Michelle Liu / Verite

A slideshow of the “F. EDWARD HEBERT MUSEUM,” as the title screen reads, featured images of Hébert and assorted memorabilia — newspaper clippings and cartoons, the model rockets and airplanes from Hébert’s Washington, D.C. office — that were once housed in the building. Interspersed among the images of politicians and accolades were paragraphs detailing Hébert’s life and deeds, without mention of his views on race or segregation.

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Michelle Liu

Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...