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Why it was time for a name change at Maryland's Byrd Stadium

This was about respect. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Maryland's Byrd Stadium has been – in multiple senses of the word – a massive contradiction.

It is the biggest, most imposing structure on the University of Maryland's College Park campus. It is a place where 50,000 Terrapin students, fans and alumni (give or take 10,000 visiting Ohio State partisans) gather on football Saturdays to drink, cheer and chant. It is a hub for civic pride.

It has also been, until Friday morning, named for an ardent racist.

Curley Byrd was, to be sure, a man of his time. Over his nearly 50 years at the university, including almost two decades as president between 1936 and 1954, he helped transform the school from a nondescript agricultural college to the academic and athletic giant it is now. His bona fides as a Marylander could not be less in doubt, and they're only reinforced by the fact that Maryland's football stadium since 1950 has been named for him all along.

Except there was a problem, that being that Curley Byrd treated black people like pond scum. He certainly did everything in his power to keep them from either playing sports or going to class anywhere near College Park. When Maryland's mostly black, 100-or-so-strong football team takes the field for home games, it has done so in a house built by a segregationist. The whole thing is as incongruous as it sounds.

Now, it's changing. With a vote by the University System of Maryland's board of regents on Friday morning, the venue will be called "Maryland Stadium" for the time being. After 65 years, Byrd's name is off the campus's biggest place. It's impossible to say how the entire football team feels about it, but at least one player seems happy.

Though his official university bio page doesn't mention it, Byrd was a notable supporter of keeping Maryland universities "separate but equal" until the 1950s. He supported barring blacks from studying in College Park until higher (read: judicial) power integrated the school in 1951. In 1937, when it came to light that a Syracuse football player who had posed as a Hindu was actually African-American, Byrd's administration threatened the Orangemen to either bench Wilmeth Sidat-Singh or watch the game be cancelled. Syracuse ultimately complied.

Wallace Loh, one of Byrd's successors and the current university president, acknowledged in a town hall meeting in early April, "Yes, he was a racist. He was a segregationist." At this stage, that Byrd worked against black people is a fact beyond any reasonable question. He's said as much in his own words.

In 1950, that might not have been such a problem. In a pre-Brown v. Board time, it might not have even made Byrd a bad person. But now - at a time when 13 percent of Maryland's student body is black - naming arguably the campus's most recognizable structure after such a hard-driving segregationist is nothing short of unpalatable. It is wildly insensitive to the nearly 3,500 black students on Maryland's campus, each of whom Byrd would have preferred not be allowed.

There are legitimate and even progressive arguments for keeping Byrd's name on the stadium. For one thing, scrubbing a name from a building will never change the school's racist past, just like it wouldn't revise history to remove Thomas Jefferson's name from every other street corner at the University of Virginia (even though Jefferson kept slaves at a time when it was the cultural norm, whereas Byrd was trying to stave off a new way of doing things.) For another, we can learn from Byrd's grave imperfections. For a third, there's something to be said for black and white athletes playing together under a racist's name, as if to taunt his ghost and say, "You can't stop us." Fair enough. Byrd has become an institution, and many of us – me included – have drawn on his name with no ill will.

But one of the most common arguments against removing Byrd's name is, while principled, not especially relevant here. This is the "Where do you draw the line?" argument. The slippery slope argument, which has become so common in our political lexicon today.

Some who oppose a name change worry that by removing Byrd's name from the campus's best-known structure, Maryland would set itself on course to alter the names of all kinds of other places. George Washington owned slaves, after all. Must the school's Washington Quad go, too?  How about Washington, D.C?

That's going overboard. It's taking a responsible step to be sensitive to every fan and player and extrapolating it into a societal trend no one here is seeking. To whitewash Byrd's name from the campus entirely would be a bridge too far. To take it off one of the single most recognizable places associated with the university, though, is a show of sensitivity.

Byrd will always be a central figure in Maryland's history. The university's football stadium wouldn't have been built without him, nor would the decades-old basketball barn, Cole Field House. Once those structures went up, they each hosted historic racial flashpoints. Darryl Hill became the first black football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1963 at Byrd, and Texas Western won a basketball national title with an all-black lineup at Cole in 1966. These were special moments, the likes of which Curley Byrd actively stalled for as long as possible.

I work part-time at the university's visitor center. When I'm there, I give tours regularly to majority-black elementary and middle school classes from Prince George's County. When I tell them about the majority of our campus, I can do it with pride. When I've told them about the football stadium, I've done it with fear that a kid would ask me about its history. If one did, what could I say?

Byrd was a man of his era. But this is a different one.

For an alternative viewpoint, click here.