The library at Brigham Young University is named after a man who said if his granddaughter got “engaged to a colored boy” while she was at the school, he would hold administrators accountable. The law school there got its name from a different man who strongly advocated for blood banks to segregate donations from Black and white people so they wouldn’t be “mixed.”
The BYU chemistry building is named for Ezra Taft Benson, who suggested that civil rights for Blacks were a “communist deception.” George A. Smith, whose name is on the campus fieldhouse, said in 1949 that “Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel” within the LDS Church, which owns the university, and that interracial marriages were “most repugnant.” And Abraham O. Smoot, for whom the administration building is named, had at least one slave while arguing against emancipation in the Utah territory.
Those are just a few of the spaces that Black students at the Provo school say are hard to enter today without thinking about that history, and feeling not only unwelcome but also hurt that those people continue to be revered.
“We are living in the shadow of that,” said Déborah Aléxis, the president of the Black Student Union on campus. “And it’s painful. We are honoring these people and creating this narrative that they’re perfect and untouchable. They’re not, though. They caused harm to people like me.”
Under her leadership, the BYU Black Student Union is now calling on the private school and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to address the issue. In a July 6 letter to President Russell M. Nelson, who oversees both the faith and the university’s board of trustees, Aléxis and other members of the group ask for the names of all individuals to be removed from every building on campus.
The hope is to stop honoring those who were racist without singling out or “de-faming” any one specific person, Aléxis said.
They propose replacing the names with more descriptive labels for what’s inside a space, such as the chemistry building or the math lab or the English department. And they have also sent a letter to the national NAACP, which has partnered with the faith, asking for support in the effort.
“Removing the names of enslavers from our campus should not be controversial and certainly not in an institution tied to a religion modeled after the teachings of Jesus Christ,” the members of the student union wrote.
Their request comes as many nationwide have protested for weeks against racism and discrimination against Black people, particularly by law enforcement. That has fueled, too, a new reckoning over monuments and statues that celebrate the Confederacy and slaveholders, as well as schools and sports teams with racist mascots.
There has been a particular focus in Utah on the majority faith and its own problematic history. And, following suit at BYU, someone splattered red paint over the statue of the church’s leader and the school’s namesake, Brigham Young, who preached the superiority of whites as a mandate from God.
The faith also previously preached that Black people were “cursed.” And it withheld leadership positions from Black members up until a few decades ago. The LDS Church has never formally apologized for its past beliefs, though.
Aléxis believes that continues to play a role on campus and that Black members still feel like a “subclass in the church” today. Starting by addressing the full histories of those whose legacies are revered, she said, would be a meaningful first step.
“Us asking for this change is an opportunity to invite the church and BYU to look into its past and do that interrogation that it really hasn’t done,” she said.
The school responded to the suggestion to remove the names on buildings by noting that it has formed a committee to look at concerns of racial inequality on campus.
“Obviously with the committee’s emphasis on listening to our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community and its experiences at BYU, renaming and un-naming feedback has been shared, along with a lot of other important feedback and input,” said university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins in an email.
She didn’t say how they would specifically respond but noted that members are looking into options. The committee also has created a site where students can leave suggestions at race.byu.edu. And, after pushback, it has added a Native American voice to the panel of faculty.
The church’s spokesman, meanwhile, declined to comment for this story.
Don Izekor, a member of the Black Student Union who graduated this spring, drafted the letters with Aléxis. He said their effort is about putting an end to the school continuing to celebrate complicated legacies.
“I know Brigham Young was racist, and I haven’t left the church,” he said. “That’s because this isn’t about Brigham Young or Abraham Smoot. We’re not condemning them. The problem is the justifications for their racism today have become more detrimental than their actual racism. That’s where I’m hurt.”
He said the building names, to him, show that the school and the faith are willing to overlook or even accept racism — saying that whenever he brings up the names, people respond that the leaders “weren’t that bad” and “did a lot of good, too.” And he believes it opens the way for members and students to do the same in their day-to-day interactions.
While on campus, he’s had students hurl racist names at him. During his first semester at BYU, Izekor was called the N-word in the middle of a class, he said. When the professor said nothing, Izekor walked out.
“I was the only Black person in there,” he said. “And I came to the realization that BYU was not going to be what I expected it would be.”
The school is 81% white and has long seen reports of discrimination. And, Izekor notes, most pews in church are filled by white members, too, in the United States.
He was accepted to attend BYU’s law school this fall — named for J. Reuben Clark, the man against mixing Black and white blood — and ended up declining, because of what happened to him as an undergraduate. He’ll be going to Cornell instead. And he wrote a separate letter to the school’s dean of admissions explaining why.
“I was disillusioned by my experiences here,” he said. “You’re baptized in racism.”
Aléxis said she has seen much of the same. In February, she was the moderator of panel on Black immigration. It was hijacked by anonymous questions from the audience, including, “Why don’t we have any white people on stage?” and “What is the percentage of African Americans on food stamps?”
The university apologized after that event and has also apologized directly to Izekor.
And it’s not just the Provo campus. At BYU in Idaho, the student newspaper wrote a story in June about how individuals of color there feel targeted. Faculty forced the authors to remove a quote from Brigham Young — his statement in 1863 that an interracial relationship would result in “death on the spot” — because it supposedly painted the leader “in a poor light,” said Peter Lopez, the editor. He was also told they had to delete a photo of a Black student holding his fist in the air.
“It’s ridiculous,” Lopez added. “They said it was too political.”
The controversial building names continue there, too. There’s the Snow Performing Arts Center at BYU-Idaho, named for Eliza R. Snow, who pushed the idea that Black individuals were “cursed.” The faith has since abandoned that position. But by keeping Snow’s name up on a building, the Black Student Union said, it preserves the idea and puts her on a pedestal.
“We know that there is no curse,” the union wrote in its letter to the church, “only fallibility and consenting silence.”
Joanna Brooks, a scholar who published the book “Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence,” has studied how the faith’s history intersects with racism. She said many of those honored on campus have “legacies of structural racism.”
Black students can’t go to the library or the gym or gets their transcripts at the administration building without running into a name associated with oppression, Brooks added.
“They deserve to be heard and respected and also protected by the university for this act of conscience,” she said. “This is a profound opportunity for LDS people to listen to our brothers and sisters and to listen to the next generation of church leaders and make good on the values we profess. We can love and honor the complicated people who led the Mormon movement and still hold them accountable.”
Brooks graduated from BYU in 1993 and said she didn’t know of many of the histories of those named on the buildings. Many white students there today still don’t, she believes. She’s been chronicling the legacies on her Twitter page to start a conversation about it.
“I was not well served by the university’s unwillingness to take responsibility for and educate me in that legacy,” she said, noting that she was an Ezra Taft Benson scholar and had no idea he had “preached against the Civil Rights Movements over the pulpit.”
Aléxis previously wrote a letter to BYU President Kevin Worthen with things she’d like changed and said she was hopeful when he said he’d work on it. The building names are the next step — and the discussion, she said, could also include the name of the university overall.
“We’re inviting Brigham Young to step off the pedestal,” she said.
She anticipates there will be pushback — and there already has been after one alumnus suggested retiring the university’s name. The discussion, though, is also about acknowledging how Black members of the faith feel and are treated, and she hopes people won’t ignore that.
BYU has a policy that doesn’t allow new buildings on campus to be named after pioneers and, as with most schools, names programs now after donors. Aléxis and Izekor would like to see that applied retroactively to remove names now.
They wrote: “All that we ask is that Brigham Young University recognizes that we, too, have the right to claim this space and that it is hard to do so with relics that myopically glorify a shameful past.”