Who is This “Palmer” in Palmer Hall?
On November 29, 1860, less than a month before the state of South Carolina adopted an ordinance seceding from the United States, Benjamin Morgan Palmer gave a speech at the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. And I think it’s important to begin with direct quotes from that speech because they speak for themselves.
He argues, for example, that the institution of slavery is inseparable from what it means to be Southern, and that abolition is an attack on being Southern: “Must I pause to show how it has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilization? How then can the hand of violence be laid upon it without involving our existence?” In the 2017 Princeton Review, Rhodes is ranked #2 in the country for its service-minded community. It’s interesting, in that light, to glance at Palmer’s insistence on “the principle of self preservation, that ‘first law’ which is continually asserting its supremacy over all others.”
He also explains that not only do white folks need slavery, but black folks as well: “every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless; and no calamity can befall them greater than the loss of that protection they enjoy under this patriarchal system.”
And in this man’s memory, citizens of New Orleans contributed funds to erect a building on the campus of Rhodes College that now houses every faculty member who studies languages and literature.
In my Rhodes career, I’ve come to know Palmer Hall extremely well — like the back of my hand. I’ve taken English, French, and Greek & Roman Studies classes there; I’ve gone to lectures and panels in Hardie Auditorium; I’ve probably stepped around the prominent Rhodes seal hundreds of times. For almost four years now, I’ve walked through halls named after a man who would have thought of me as property, no more valuable than cattle or a piece of good machinery.
Many who are opposed to the removal of white supremacist iconography in the South have argued that doing so is essentially an erasure of history. Yet Palmer Hall — whose decontextualized name graces one of our most prominent buildings — erases the history of deep, unfathomable suffering that Benjamin Palmer urged the South to defend with its life. A public removal of the name would be a public acknowledgment that Rhodes is not exempt from examining its complex past with a critical eye, the same critical eye it supposedly passes on to its students.
The continued neglect and exclusion of students of color by the Rhodes administration, and by Rhodes’ culture in general, is vividly reflected in the Confederate legacy of the Palmer name. And in a majority-black city that constantly grapples with majority-white institutions of power, the maintenance of the name would show Rhodes lagging behind an imperfect city government that, nevertheless, continues to push for the removal of a prominent Confederate monument. If Rhodes wants to claim a “Commitment to Diversity,” as they constantly do when on-campus bigotry bubbles to the surface, town halls and press releases are not enough. I want to see a commitment to blackness — Southern blackness, Memphis blackness, our blackness.