OCU’s Difficult Precedent

Oklahoma Christian University has made the choice to respond to student concern about the racial history of one of their building’s namesakes (N. B. Hardeman) by renaming it. The story has made national religion news. In some respects, this choice is heartening. The objections of Hardeman’s grandson notwithstanding, all evidence suggests that Hardeman was a casual, open racist typical of his time–though not for this excusable. Coming to grips with its deep history of racism is an overdue chore for many churches, and the Churches of Christ particularly so, as they have by no means moved beyond their segregationist tendencies. So kudos to OCU for tackling the problem head on, as other churches and congregations have tried to do, however symbolically.

At the same time, OCU sets for itself and other institutions affiliated with the Churches of Christ a very difficult precedent. As a movement born of and maturing in among the most overtly racist periods in US history, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement has little but deeply imperfect leaders in its history when it comes to race. When some quote (and there are ample) from David Lipscomb or James Harding emerges, will whole universities need to change their name? Freed-Hardeman shows no sign of following OCU’s lead and dropping the “Hardeman” from its name (even if most of us just call it “Freed” for convenience anyway). If OCU’s approach to the problem is really the most constructive, than there is a great purge coming.

If so, it’s not a big deal; names on universities or university buildings shouldn’t demand more loyalty than racial justice. I still can’t help but wonder if this isn’t tokenism plain and simple. There are still real issues of racial divide and injustice in the country, in the churches, and probably at OCU. If you put a blue uniform on Jefferson Davis, he doesn’t become Abraham Lincoln. Scrubbing bad names off of buildings doesn’t change what’s inside.

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