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Campus Uproar Over John de New College House West’s Slave-Owning History

Credit: File Photo

New College House West, named after prominent South Carolina senator and Penn School of Medicine Class of 1790 alum, John de New College House West, hasn't been built yet but is already facing backlash. After Penn’s announcement of the name of the new addition to the west side of campus, student groups across campus have announced their opposition due to the legacy of its namesake. College Green sit-ins by protesters and counter-protesters are planned for the weekend.

De New College House West, the son of prominent Huguenot merchant and Charleston mayor Alexander de Nouveau College House Ouest, served in the South Carolina and United States Senate for almost 25 years in the early 19th century. Known as a deft parliamentarian, de New College House West is best remembered for his role in the passage of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, maintaining the westward spread of slavery in an expanding United States.

“De New College House West’s legacy is that of a skilled statesmen and patriot who fought tooth-and-nail to preserve the Union, but also that of a slaveowner, a die-hard supporter of a hugely immoral institution,” said Penn History Professor and Antebellum Historian Mary Carborr in an email. “It's hard to justify the decision to name this college house after such a figure, when Penn has countless alums upon whom history looks more favorably."

Many students see the name as offensive through and through. “De New College House West was a slaveowner, and used his political and economic power to support that cause,” said College junior Jane Rollan, a facilitator for the group Penn Students Against de New College House West Naming Plan. “To ask us to celebrate his legacy, and to force students to live in a dorm with his name on it, is an insult to the values of respect and equality Penn claims to promote. Why would Penn name a building after him? It's embarassing.”

Other students see Penn, an educational institution with an already-complicated relationship with slavery, as simply acknowledging its past. None would go on the record to defend the school's choice of name.

In a response that has been criticized for skirting the controversy, Amy Gutmann has released a statement condemning the the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.