The portrait in LeConte Hall sparked discussions about racism, history and legacy on Tuesday.
Students and faculty gathered in LeConte Hall to discuss the future of Joseph LeConte’s portrait, which hangs in the building. LeConte’s racist past fueled a forum about the history of the hall and the portrait, led by history professor Akela Reason.
The University of Georgia’s history building is named after Joseph LeConte who was the UGA’s third geology professor from 1852-1856. The LeConte portrait, in particular, was painted by Kate Flournoy Edwards and is dated 1944. LeConte was notable at UGA for his pursuit of the natural sciences and was a Darwinist; however, he came from a slave-holding family and is known for his racist views.
In 1892, LeConte published a book titled “The Race Problem in the South,” detailing his belief in the inherent inferiority of the African American population. In his book, he pushed for the disenfranchisement of African Americans, anti-miscegenation laws and poll tests.
There were a few potential solutions regarding what to do with the portrait. Some people in the forum suggested replacing the portrait of LeConte with someone more representative of the history department. There were suggestions to remove the portrait entirely, but not without including the addition of a plaque that would explain the change.
“I just think that if we go in the dead of night and rip the portrait off the wall, that we’re just putting a bandaid over a very deep wound,” said Rachel Bentley, a senior history major.
However, these potential solutions had problems of their own. Reason pointed out that one of the larger issues regarding the removal of the portrait would be in finding its owner. Another problem with removing the portrait, or changing the name of the building entirely, is the fact that LeConte was not a controversial figure during his time.
“His legacy was not contested in his own lifetime. He appears as a leading scientist in his era,” Reason said.
LeConte is not the only racist figure from the past honored by the university with something named after them.
“We have the Russell chair in this department, the Coulter chair, we have the Spalding chair, we have Saye, who was not a slave owner but an out and out racist,” said Claudio Saunt, a professor in the history department.
One attendee of the forum argued that LeConte was a multifaceted character and his portrait should stay because of his contributions to science and conservation. He said the racist views LeConte had have no bearings on modern day society.
“I feel like having this portrait is an insult to all the people he harmed directly through slavery and white supremacy and indirectly through laws and books."
— Arianna Anthony, UGA sophomore
Although there are arguments to keep LeConte’s portrait hanging in LeConte Hall, the forum discussed what it that portrait might mean to the African Americans during the time who were affected by the works LeConte published in his lifetime.
“I feel like having this portrait is an insult to all the people he harmed directly through slavery and white supremacy and indirectly through laws and books,” said Arianna Anthony, a sophomore history and education major.
Although the LeConte portrait was removed from the hall for a period of time, it returned when Saunt asked Reason if she could do an exhibition with her museum class about the portrait. The portrait will remain on the wall through the summer while her students study and do research for the exhibition.
“I think some of what is the problem in the South is this adulation that’s given to these white men without representing who they really are,” Reason said.