UT is a constellation of iconic landmarks such as the Littlefield Fountain and the Frank Erwin Center. These buildings memorialize men who once enjoyed power, and their legacies are posthumously carved into the very hearts of structures we occupy. Yet when one genealogizes these men whose names litter the front of memorable UT buildings, their naturalized aura of reverence quickly dissipates.
One begins to realize these men were not excellent human beings. They were not above but rigidly beholden to the prejudices and injustices of their time, and they often operated violently to suppress student agitations for a better world.
In September, the UT Board of Regents renamed the Student Activity Center to the William C. Powers, Jr. Student Activity Center. In 2018, the board changed the Liberal Arts Building to Patton Hall after oil and gas millionaire Robert L. Patton donated $20 million to the College of Liberal Arts.
Dr. Leonard N. Moore, vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement, said “there are no plans to change the name of any buildings in the foreseeable future.” This is unacceptable — the Board of Regents must rename Robert Lee Moore Hall to Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy.
UT’s RLM building commemorates Robert L. Moore. He was a man who deeply understood mathematics but failed in his professorial duty to share his knowledge with black students. Moore once told Dr. Eugene Hunt, a masters student at the time, “you are welcome to take my course, but you start with a C and can only go down from there.” He was the human embodiment of white supremacy. It is his name that’s plastered in front of UT’s building for physics, math and astronomy.
Naming is an expression of political power. The act of naming raises the question of who has the power to make legible the spaces in which we conduct our studies. To name a campus building after someone is to affirm that figure is worthy of veneration. Far from a neutral act, to name is to keep certain ghosts, value particular historical beings above others and is as much a project of inclusion (eternalizing Robert Moore) as exclusion (forgetting the black students he refused to teach).
Students and faculty have demanded UT change the name of Robert Lee Moore Hall to Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy for years. Despite institutional passivity, some already call the building its requested name. The board’s unanimous decision to rename the Student Activity Center and Liberal Arts Building suggests renaming isn’t difficult or unfeasible.
“UT has been ignoring students calls to rename (Robert Lee Moore Hall), but chooses to rename (others) just because alumni are donating money,” Christina Bui, international relations and global studies senior, said. “And every time they rename a building, they continue to ignore the fact that students have been trying to change the RLM to (Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy) for years.”
“It’s clear the University feels more comfortable accepting millions of dollars from a top dog oil and gas investor than it does confronting its antiblack history,” Bui said. “It sets a precedent that money is more important than the ways universities treat its marginalized students, namely black students.”
By all historical accounts, Robert L. Moore was a white supremacist who always punched down. He did not affirm women or non-white people as human beings. He was more interested in adding numbers than in the welfare of his black students. That is reason enough to warrant his removal. But to demand renaming is not simply to express moral outrage at a cartoonishly racist individual, pat ourselves on the back and move on.
To demand UT rename its building is to call into question the subtle ways that the system of white supremacy is quietly etched into our world — in the buildings we think, the language we use, the kinds of people we memorialize and so on. By historicizing instead of moralizing, we understand Moore represents a small node in a vastly expansive network of domination. A network that reserves resources and power for whiteness, where wealth buys public spaces, a system in which Robert Moore spawns countless other polite, racist white people.
It is to recognize that a nation birthed by centuries of antiblack violence cannot absolve itself of its sin by changing the names of buildings within its elite institutions. But nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction.
Once Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy replaces Moore’s corpse, the human struggle for racial justice secures a contingent victory, but the war continues. Our community must vanquish Moore’s ghost from campus grounds.
Lee is a sociology senior from Houston.