In February, James Madison University's Board of Visitors unanimously selected new names for three campus buildings. Their choices were notable in more ways than one. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.
Three of the oldest buildings on JMU's campus now bear new names that no longer honor lost cause Confederates, but rather five Black Americans who have contributed significantly to the University’s growth and culture over the last century.
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Of the five honorees, four are still living.
DR. SHEARY DARCUS JOHNSON: My initial thoughts were, 'wow.’ [laughs] I was surprised, yet honored that someone thought about me to name a building after me.
Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson, the first Black graduate of JMU, was one of the honorees for whom a building was renamed. Dr. Johnson received both her bachelors' and master's degrees from JMU, and spent her life teaching library science at Virginia Commonwealth University. She started two non-profits to help other students achieve success, and became a celebrated author. Justice Studies Hall, an interim name to temporarily replace the old name, was renamed Darcus Johnson Hall in her honor.
Johnson is proud of her education at JMU, and remembers her time fondly there.
JOHNSON: The faculty was very good and accepting and helping me when I needed help. Of course there were a few students who you could tell, they didn’t prefer being around you, like if you’d sit down at a table, they got up and moved to another table. But I didn’t let that bother me.
UPDATE: Shortly after JMU renamed a building in her honor, Doris Harper Allen has died. Read a remembrance from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham NAACP.
The board also voted to rename Valley Hall, also an interim name, to Harper Allen–Lee Hall, in honor of Doris Harper Allen and Robert Walker Lee, both dedicated members of the JMU staff and Harrisonburg community. Allen was barred from attending Madison College – renamed a University in 1977 -- because of segregation, and was part of the revitalization efforts of the Northeast Neighborhood. An author, Allen received an honorary doctorate from JMU for her research in 2019. Lee, who was in maintenance at JMU, died in 1929, and his obituary noted that his funeral drew one of the largest crowds ever seen in Bridgewater.
Dr. Joanne Gabbin, along with her husband, Alexander Gabbin, have both been professors at the University for more than 35 years. Both scholars have expanded their programs and garnered national and international acclaim, including Joanne Gabbins’ Furious Flower Poetry Center, the nation's first center for Black poetry. Her husband Alexander is the director of the accounting curriculum.
Mountain Hall was renamed Gabbin Hall, in honor of their outstanding dedication and work for the University.
GABBIN: For me, my legacy was always going to be my students. The students I have taught, the students I have mentored, the students I’ve even influenced during my 36 years here as a faculty member. I really saw them as a large part of that legacy. Now, this building will also be a part of my legacy. It’s just so gratifying and humbling.
Johnson agrees. She says she’d never dreamed that she would have been given this honor, and that it didn’t quite hit her until many years later what her impact would be to future students at the University.
JOHNSON: Students have told me that they are thankful that I’ve paved the way, and how much they respect what I did, and what it provided for them. And I just tell them I’m glad. I’m glad I was able to do that. I did not set out to do that, but I’m glad that the impact was a positive one for them.
JMU President Jonathan Alger was part of the senior leadership, along with the Campus History Committee, who made the name recommendations to the JMU Board of Visitors last week for their approval. He says that it was important to senior leadership that students and faculty felt that they were represented on campus.
ALGER: We want people to know when they are walking across campus, when they are walking into these buildings, that they can see themselves and feel that they are very much a part of that history and that story of James Madison University.
Dr. Gabbin agrees.
GABBIN: For the students who are now here, and the students who will come, they will feel that now JMU is a much more welcoming place because JMU has recognized African Americans who have contributed to their community, to the state, and to the nation. And I am so, so honored to be among those people.