As many colleges have begun deliberations on whether to change the names of their buildings, Montevallo is right in the middle of their own discussion on the history of many of the buildings on campus. It initially came to the University’s attention through a petition started by UM alumna Samantha Pullen. The petition’s initial intent was to get the name of Bibb Graves, a gymnasium and dance studio on campus, changed to something that better fits the University’s current beliefs.
This petition led to a renewed interest by both the University and the community to discover who the buildings on campus are actually named after. For years, many students have been able to forget that there are people tied to these buildings, but now, more than ever we have to acknowledge the names we see here every day.
Comer Hall and Comer Auditorium are both named after Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer, who served from 1907 to 1911. According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Comer established rural schools and a high school per county, exclusively for white students. He increased spending on multiple colleges, including the Girls Technical School at Montevallo, which is now known as the University of Montevallo. He advised legislators to be liberal with the funding as he believed education to be a crucial investment. Much of the money from these reforms came from the Convict Leasing System, a system where prisoners were leased to private companies to serve out their sentences doing labor. 97% of the labor force was composed of black people and it was referred to as the new slavery.
Comer took many strides in railroad reformation, where he requested legislation to pass 20 separate laws to give railroad commissions powers to rival neighboring states. As a planter and mill owner, this reform helped his business by limiting the power of the railroad. He was also anti child labor reform, and he had child laborers in his mill. He believed that children who worked did so in place of their parents. Before his tenure as governor, he sabotaged a bill to end child labor, but during his tenure he passed a law that required children to attend eight consecutive weeks of school until age 16. He claimed to be nonpartial to unions, but in 1908, he called for the military to disband a coal strike by demolishing tents where the strikers lived, which effectively putting an end to the protests.
Comer also passed the local-option liquor bill, which let counties decide for themselves whether they would be a dry county or not. By the end of his term however, he highly encouraged all counties to become dry. In 1901, while running for governor, another man whose name would come to be on a Montevallo building was in charge of running his campaign. His name was David Bibb Graves.
David Bibb Graves served as the governor of Alabama from 1927 to 1931 and 1935 to 1939. Bibb Graves has the most buildings named after him because as governor, he raised the $9.9 million education budget to $25 million – the largest budget increase Alabama had seen for education at the time. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama Online his educational reform also extended to making major improvements for the Alabama School for the Deaf and the Blind, as well as forming the “Division of Negro Education.” He introduced the seven-month school year, and raised teacher’s pay from $689 per year in 1926 to $761 in 1929.
He won his initial term as governor by winning the votes of the laborers, the prohibition movement, the women’s rights movement and the Klu Klux Klan. Within the Klan, he had the title of Exalted Cyclops, which denotes a chapter leader. In 1928, he resigned from the Klan, condemning it for violence, but never taking direct action to fight the Klan’s presence in the state.
According to Archiving Montevallo, a project run by Carmichael Digital Projects, many buildings on campus are named after influential people who have worked for Montevallo in the past. Wills Hall being named after Edward Houston Wills, the business manager for the University from 1929 till 1946. Buildings such as Peterson, Carmichael and Lund are all named after past University presidents.
One of those presidents was Dr. Thomas Waverly Palmer, president of the University from 1907 to 1926. He served the longest tenure as president and oversaw the most growth the college had ever seen. He introduced a focus on liberal arts that the school holds in high regard to this day, and helped shift the institution towards granting degrees on a college level. He also helped with constructing Bloch, The Tower, the Dairy and buying King House in 1908.
King House was named after Edmund King, a man who owned much of Montevallo in the early 1800’s. He was a plantation owner who used his funds to sponsor local churches, schools and the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School. His family’s cemetery resides on campus as well, located behind Hill House. When Palmer purchased the King House, it was originally called Nabor Hall. Now it serves as a guest house for important visitors to the University.
Archiving Montevallo includes information on the buildings themselves. Reynolds Hall now serves as the Admissions Office for the University, but in the past, it was a co-educational Presbyterian school. Much like King House, it was built by slaves who made bricks from the mud to build the structure, and the town gave it to the state in hopes that it would convince them to put Alabama Girls’ Industrial School in Montevallo.
Despite never being a teacher, Henry Reynolds was an education enthusiast and served as the first president of the college. While serving in the Confederate army, he reached the rank of a Lieutenant. Locals nicknamed him “Captain” in honor of the many dangerous missions he took where he had to cross enemy lines. He lobbied for the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School, and when he was granted permission, he fought to fill the school with passionate students and professors.
Southern history is full of interesting people, equal parts problematic and progressive. From the cobblestone roads to the windows in our buildings, Montevallo is entrenched in complex history.
As the committee formed by President Stewart moves forward in the renaming of our buildings, the hope remains that we can continue to push for the progressive ideals that we strive to represent. It is equally as important to know where we come from as knowing where we want to go.