A controversy is brewing at the University of Texas at Austin over a residence hall named in honor of William Stewart Simkins, a native South Carolinian who graduated from The Citadel in 1861 and was an unapologetic Ku Klux Klan organizer.
Simkins was part of the cadet battery that fired on the supply ship Star of the West in Charleston Harbor in January of that year, a significant precursor to the Civil War.
After the war ended, Simkins traveled with his brother Eldred Simkins to Monticello, Fla., about 30 miles east of Tallahassee, where the two organized that state's Ku Klux Klan.
William Simkins eventually became a law professor at the University of Texas, a job he held from 1899 until his death in 1929.
Thomas Russell, a former University of Texas law professor and a historian, wrote a paper about Simkins that was recently released. The academic paper has raised eyebrows because an all-male residence hall on campus bears the name of the Klansman.
The university's president has called for a committee to be formed to explore removing Simkins' name from the dorm, a university spokeswoman said. President William Powers wants a recommendation from the committee by the end of June, she said.
Russell, now a law professor at the University of Denver, said Florida's Jefferson County, which was Simkins' home base, was "one of the most murderous counties in Florida" during Reconstruction.
Simkins denied that he ever drew any blood, Russell stated in his paper. But he admitted assaulting freed blacks in a 1914 Thanksgiving Day speech on the University of Texas campus that Russell referenced in his paper.
In that speech, Simkins recalled a white woman who said she had been insulted by a black male. Simkins said he "seized a barrel stave lying near the hotel door" and whipped the black male "down the street into the Freedman's Bureau."
Simkins also admitted instilling fear as a masked night rider in the speech. "We worked, of course, upon the fears and superstitions of the Negroes, performing before their cabins at night apparently supernatural stunts," he stated. "The immediate effect upon the Negro was wonderful, the flitting to and fro of masked horses and faces struck terror to the race."
Russell said he thinks the university named the dorm after Simkins as a snub to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which pushed the school to begin to integrate. The residence hall opened in 1955.
Decision-makers at the time were not given a detailed and accurate report of Simkins' past Klan activity, he said.
The Citadel leaders confirmed that Simkins was a graduate and is portrayed in a mural about the firing on Star of the West in the school's library.
Russell said he learned from reports in The Evening Post in 1960 and The News and Courier in 1972 that the cadet in the mural who is holding the ramrod is Simkins. The two newspapers merged in 1991 to become The Post and Courier.
Russell said he's thrilled that his paper was so widely read, which is uncommon for many academic works.
Simkins was popular among law students, who at the time were all white males, when he taught at the university, Russell said. And over the years, his Klan history has faded from memory and he's become known as a "colorful and eccentric" character who looked a lot like Mark Twain, he said. A bust of Simkins used to sit on the reference desk in the law library and students, who knew nothing about Simkins' past, would rub his head for luck.
Russell thinks it's great that his paper sparked a conversation on the impact of historical events in everyday life. And he thinks it also has sparked conversations on the difference between Confederate soldiers and Klansmen.
Simkins being part of the battery that fired on Star of the West was notable, Russell said. "His service in the Confederate military was honorable. But organizing the Klan was despicable."
Too many people assume the Confederacy equals the Klan, he said. "One was military service and the other was terrorism after the conclusion of the war."