Centre College removes name of bigoted U.S. Supreme Court justice from building

The former McReynolds Hall will now be known as 762 West Main after students pushed to get U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds’ name removed because of his well known bigotry.
The former McReynolds Hall will now be known as 762 West Main after students pushed to get U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds’ name removed because of his well known bigotry. Centre College/Robert Boag

Centre College has removed the name of U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds from one of its buildings after a group of students researched his documented bigotry from the bench.

McReynolds Hall will now be known as 762 West Main Street, its physical address. The Centre Board of Trustees unanimously approved the change at its winter meeting last month, spokesman Michael Strysick said.

Strysick declined to identify the students, citing federal privacy laws.

McReynolds was born in Todd County in 1862 and attended Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia. He was U.S. Attorney General under President Woodrow Wilson, who appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1914. He and three other justices became known as the “Four Horsemen,” and McReynolds tried to block numerous pieces of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. When he died in 1946, he left an unrestricted gift of $59,000 to Centre, and at the time, trustees voted to name a building in his honor, Strysick said. The gift would now be worth $730,000.

According to a history of the Supreme Court, McReynolds refused to have blacks, women, Jews or smokers as his law clerks. He refused to speak to fellow Kentuckian Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice, for three years, and he left the room whenever Brandeis spoke. He would not sign opinions authored by Brandeis or another Jewish justice, Benjamin Cardozo, according to a Supreme Court documentary by author John Fox, who also said McReynolds read a newspaper during Cardozo’s swearing-in ceremony.

In his book “Injustices,” author Ian Millhiser described McReynolds as one of the five worst justices of all time because of laziness and bigotry.

“There is no official photograph of the justices for 1924 because the court’s seniority-based seating chart required McReynolds to sit next to Brandeis, and McReynolds simply refused to be photographed next to his Jewish colleague,” Millhiser writes. “When Brandeis offered his views in conferences, McReynolds would simply stand up and leave.”

As Centre President John Roush stated in a campuswide email, “the majority of accounts of his (McReynolds’) career focus on his discriminatory views, rather than his legal opinions or other work.”

The board of trustees acted “because the views for which McReynolds became most closely identified are completely inconsistent with the values fully embraced today by the college, those of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance,” Roush wrote. “A key factor for the board was that the values McReynolds publicly expressed were not generally accepted in his own time.”

In addition to Centre, McReynolds bequeathed his estate to other charities, including the Children’s Hospital in Washington. During his lifetime, he also helped more than 30 children who were orphaned during World War II, bringing them to the United States.

The building houses technology services and includes some student housing. Strysick said removing the building’s name represented college governance “at its best.” The students made a request to the school and Roush then convened a committee, which recommended the change to the board.

Centre has other, more positive connections to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Fred Vinson graduated from Centre in 1909; he was the court’s top judge from 1946 to 1953. Centre alumnus John Marshall Harlan served on the Supreme Court for 34 years; he cast the lone dissenting vote on Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which legalized racial segregation.

Like Centre, institutions around the country are reconsidering aspects of their history. Last year, Princeton University announced that it would keep the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs despite Wilson’s support for segregation and defense of slavery. Other universities, including Harvard, Brown and the University of Virginia, have acknowledged and documented their history with and benefits from slavery.

In 2015 University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto ordered a shroud for a mural in Memorial Hall that depicted slavery. Last year, a task force recommended uncovering the painting and providing more context about its meaning and history.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford