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Maryland's Byrd Stadium is named for a racist. Should that change?

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Maryland's football stadium is named for a known racist. Student groups have called for a change, and the university needs to decide for itself if that's for the best.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

These days, Byrd Stadium is an uncomfortable topic on Maryland's campus.

The 50,000-plus seat home to the Terrapins football team since the 1950s, the stadium gets its name from a known racist. Curley Byrd was the university's president from 1936 to 1954, and a coach and administrator for 25 years before that. He ushered Maryland through booming growth and helped it become the academic and athletic behemoth it is today. He also actively prevented blacks from playing sports at Maryland until 1951 and pushed as hard as anybody for the state's separation of black and white college students.

Byrd watched over the construction of the football field 65 years ago, and the stadium still takes his name. When Maryland held an on-field ceremony in 2013 to honor a black Syracuse player who Byrd's administration had prevented from playing in a game in 1937, it happened at Byrd Stadium. When Darryl Hill became the first black player in major college football in the South, he played his home games at Byrd Stadium.

It has been a notable incongruity for years. Now, student groups on Maryland's campus are making serious, coordinated noise about it. Via Susan Svrluga of The Washington Post:

On Wednesday night, the school's student government agreed to their resolution, which read in part:

"WHEREAS, Harry Clifton "Curley" Byrd (Byrd) , University President 1936-1954, used university funds to build what is now Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium; and,

WHEREAS, during Byrd's Tenure he barred blacks from participating in sports and enrolling into the University until 1951 ...

"THEREFORE BE IT ENACTED, that the SGA stand in solidarity with the student body in support of changing the name of Byrd Stadium; and,

BE IT FURTHER ENACTED,  the University work with students, alumni, faculty/staff, athletics, and Capital One to find a suitable name for the football stadium

A student named Colin Byrd (who is black and has no relation to Curley Byrd "except probably the plantation," he said recently), has been perhaps the student body's loudest voice in favor of changing the name:

"Because, quite frankly, if Curley Byrd had his way, I would not have attended this university," Colin Byrd said. "My father would not have attended this university. Every other black student, black athlete, black faculty member, who has blessed this university, and who has been blessed by this university, would not have had the opportunity to call themselves terrapins. And that's powerful."

...

[A] coalition of groups — including the NAACP, the Black Student Union, some other multicultural and Greek organizations — sponsored an open meeting recently to discuss an e-mail written by a U-Md. student that was full of racist (and other) slurs.

That email – a cocktail of racism and misogyny too vile to be linked here – came to light in mid-March and inspired a mix of sadness and fury on the campus. It led university president Wallace Loh to hold a town hall meeting last week where students could air their grievances and concerns about inclusivity and safety. The event was held under a "Rise Above" banner, and you can watch it all here:

Around the the 29:30 mark, Byrd, the student, took the microphone and (among other points) asked Loh why he hadn't acted to change Byrd Stadium's name.

Loh said changing the name would be a shared-governance issue, which is true. As the university's president, Loh indeed carries a big stick on policy and naming issues, but the final call on renaming the stadium falls to the state university system's board of regents. Loh elaborated, too, on the issue at hand:

"Curley Byrd was the longest serving president for about 20 years. If I recollect correctly, he began his presidency in 1935. He ended his presidency before Brown v. Board of Education was announced in March of 1954, that declared that segregated schools are unlawful. As an official of the state in the 1930s and 1940s, he was living in a state that was segregated. The University of Maryland was segregated. All the other institutions were segregated. I'm not saying it's right. So you're raising the question: Yes, he was a racist, he was a segregationist. 'Should we, today, change his name?' It's a valid question. You have a First Amendment right to ask that question and to probe very deeply."

It's a heavy question. On one side, keeping Byrd Stadium's name is merely a nod to the university's history and a man of his time. And maybe it's for the best to acknowledge the school's racist past and own it, rather than try to scrub a racist historical figure's name from the public eye. On the other, how can the university play one of its most popular sports (a sport with high black representation) in a stadium named for a man who invested many hours in keeping blacks away from this university? It's quite the contradiction on quite a few levels.

(The same debate could apply to the campus gym, the Eppley Recreation Center – named for the point man in keeping Syracuse's black star Wilmeth Sidat-Singh off the field back in 1937.)

Stakeholders from all corners could run in circles debating this for years, and they have, albeit sometimes quietly. But the Student Government Association's 13-2-2 Wednesday resolution is a potential first salvo in what would be an emotionally fraught policy process. Still, it is premature to expect the name to actually change. Loh will leave his recommendation up to a review by a campus facility-naming commission (which exists). If that panel approves a name change, Loh is expected to take it to the state's regents. It's a long road.

It's also a big question. So, please, feel free to weigh in with sensitive, respectful comments.