Students at the University of South Carolina are calling for school officials to rename a campus dorm bearing the name of a controversial 19th century doctor who carried out painful medical experiments on enslaved women.
J. Marion Sims, born in Rock Hill in 1813, is widely considered the "Father of Gynecology." He invented an early version of the speculum and pioneered a surgical technique to cure a debilitating vaginal condition, but his legacy has become increasingly contentious.
In January, New York City officials announced they will move a statue of Sims off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to the doctor's grave in Brooklyn. Residents in East Harlem have long objected to the statue's current location in their community.
Now, students at USC are raising their own objections about Sims. Linden Atelsek, an opinion editor at The Daily Gamecock, recently called for leaders at the school to rename Sims College, a dormitory on the university's Columbia campus.
"(Sims') medical discoveries are inextricably linked to the atrocities he committed on enslaved women; there's no veneer of civility and honor that we can reasonably pull over his experiments to pretend they should be glorified," Atelsek wrote. "It's especially hideous that his building is the central feature of Women's Quad. It lends credence to the idea of his work uplifting women, when in reality it was founded in the oppression of black women."
But USC administrators, even those who may wish to see Sims' name scrubbed from the building, are bound by the state's Heritage Act, which doesn't offer them much flexibility to make any change.
Passed in 2000, the South Carolina Heritage Act was seen as a compromise to moving the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome to a nearby Confederate soldier monument.
The law requires two-thirds approval of the 170-member General Assembly to remove or alter monuments, buildings or roads on public property.
John Dozier, USC's associate provost and chief diversity officer, said university officials routinely get complaints from students about Sims College, as well as several other building names on campus, some of which are named after Confederate soldiers and officers. The Strom Thurmond Wellness & Fitness Center, named after the deceased South Carolina senator who once opposed the Civil Rights Act and campaigned on the Dixiecrat ticket, receives its share of criticism, too, he said.
"I agree with our students," Dozier said. "I think many of us here at the university would agree that some of our buildings are named after people who have done some horrific things in our past."
He acknowledged that the Heritage Act constrains school officials from changing building names. But he said that doesn't mean USC administrators are doing nothing.
School leaders have convened a group of historians and students to discuss how context may be added to these buildings to paint a fuller picture.
"My personal feelings are that history should be additive and not subtractive. These monuments were put up at a time for a particular reason," Dozier said. "I feel we have a responsibility not to do what is mentally simple, which is to simply remove names, remove figures so that we don’t have to think about them. I think we should do the hard work of contextualizing these figures. We should tell the broad stories ... of the people whose names adorn some of our buildings."
Dozier couldn't provide a timeframe for when the group might discuss the Sims building. But on Wednesday, a new statue of Richard T. Greener will be unveiled on the central campus. He was the first black graduate of Harvard College and became USC's first black faculty member in 1873. He also graduated from USC's law school.
The statue was commissioned after a 2015 student protest forced school leaders to address inequality on campus and to recognize the use of slave labor during USC's early years.
Two plaques were installed in the university's historic horseshoe last year explaining the role slaves played constructing the school's first buildings.
"I don’t consider this work done," Dozier said.