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JMU renames buildings, honors African Americans for their contributions

Posted at 11:32 PM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 10:59:21-05

HARRISONBURG, Va. -- James Madison University changed the names of three campus buildings this week to honor five African Americans who worked for or attended the school.

Last year, the university's board of visitors voted unanimously to remove the names of Confederate military leaders from the buildings.

Now, these three buildings on the campus's historic quad are known as Gabbin Hall, Darcus Johnson Hall Harper Allen-Lee Hall.

These names represent the lives of five honorable African Americans whose legacy will continue at the university forever.

“Doris Harper Allen wanted to go to college, but couldn’t come to JMU because schools were segregated. She became a cook to the president," said JMU's President Jonathan Alger. "Robert Walker Lee, according to our records, was the very first black employee of the university and he worked in maintenance."

Doris Harper Allen JMU.jpeg
Harpen Allen-Lee Hall is named partly in honor of Doris Harper Allen (’19H)

Alger added, "We have records that show the students and faculty really appreciated him. He used to leave notes on the blackboard and students and faculty loved to see them. He was a beloved figure in his community of Bridgewater."

Robert Walker Lee 1919 JMU.jpeg
Harper Allen-Lee Hall is named partly in honor of Robert Walker Lee

Another newly-named building is a nod to Richmond minister and long-time educator, Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson. She’s the first African American to attend and graduate from JMU.

“I just believe the Lord just ordered my steps. He knew what was on the other side, not me," said Darcus Johnson. "JMU means a lot to me. I learned a lot about life. I learned a lot about people. I never considered leaving. As far as feeling supported, I felt like I did have supporters even though they weren’t the same color as me. The students were also supportive."

Sheary Darcus Johnson.jpeg
Darcus Johnson Hall is named in honor of Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson (’70, ’74M), JMU’s first Black student and graduate

The third building was named in honor of long-time JMU professors Dr. Joanne and Dr. Alexander Gabbin.

Both doctors arrived at JMU as Commonwealth Visiting Professors in 1985. University officials said the pair have since garnered local, regional and national acclaim for their individual scholarship and teaching.

Dr. Joanne Gabbin is noted for founding The Furious Flower Poetry Center -- the nation’s first academic center devoted to black poetry -- and directing the JMU Honors College for nearly two decades.

She said when she got the call from Alger about the building named in their honor, she was completely floored.

“For a moment I just stopped talking and said to myself, is this really happening? Is it happening to me and my husband, who are still working and very much alive?" said Joanne. "We are very much blessed by just working, so it was an honor and I’m humbled. I’m just so excited."

Gabbins JMU.jpeg
Gabbin Hall is named in honor of Drs. Joanne V. and Alexander Gabbin, professors at JMU for more than 35 years.

Alexander said he’s very pleased with the work of the forty-seven member History Committee who ultimately selected the new building names.

“It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around it. People have been saying things and I’ve been honest. Intellectually I understand it, but emotionally I don’t think that it really settled in” Alexander said.

He called the university president’s decision last year a bold move. “You’ve got to take a look at what that history committee was trying to do when President Alger made that bold move last do what he did by removing the names that he did. That history committee went about trying to set a new agenda in terms of perspective. They’ve chosen three different sets of people representing three different eras to go ahead and try to address some things that have been ignored” Alexander added.

Among his many accomplishments, Alexander co-founded the National Black MBA Association. He was also the first African American director of the JMU School of Accounting in College of Business.

“I think the biggest thing that’s an honor to me is that I actually got chosen to represent us, to represent the faculty...the black faculty. The people who have given and striven and done all of that stuff for this school, and now we say, yeah, that one’s for you” Alexander explained.

Alger said their goal is to tell a more complete history of the university. “To make sure people of all backgrounds can feel themselves represented as they’re walking around campus and interacting in and outside of these buildings to know that everybody’s contributions are recognized, noticed and valued. It’s a recognition that this university was built and has evolved based on contributions of many, many different people who deserve to be celebrated.”

In the fall, the university will host an official ceremony and celebrate with the families.

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