Florida State University President John Thrasher is opting to relocate a statue commemorating the late Francis Eppes, a former slave owner who has been credited with the university’s formation, and is seeking legislative action to rename the law school building currently displaying former state Supreme Court Chief Justice B.K. Roberts’ name.
Thrasher’s Tuesday announcement follows an advisory panel’s request that he rename the main law school building, remove and curate a statue commemorating Eppes, and rename a building honoring Eppes.
Thrasher received the panel’s report on Friday. He had the option to accept, modify or decline the recommendations. He chose to decline to change the name of Eppes Hall, the fifth building erected at the university that currently houses the school’s College of Criminology. Instead, a contextualized “marker” will be placed in or near the building and will include details of “his slave ownership and role as justice of the peace, and to place his contribution to the founding of this institution in proper context,” reads Thrasher’s letter.
Eppes, a grandson to Thomas Jefferson, was a “prominent citizen, community leader, four-time (intendant) mayor of Tallahassee,” the 15-member advisory panel found.
However, “Historical records also documented other aspects of Eppes’ life, including his ownership of slaves at both of his Florida plantation,” according to the panel. He also served as Justice of the Peace in Tallahassee “for which his duties would have included establishing ‘frontier’ law and order for the area and patrols for escaped slaves.”
A statue honoring Eppes can be seen at FSU’s Westcott Plaza, one of the most iconic locations of the campus. The nearby Westcott building houses Thrasher’s office.
“To keep a statue located at the front gates of campus is to give Eppes a level of prominence that is simply not appropriate,” reads Thrasher’s letter.
Eppes has been credited with founding the university, although the panel argued, “Additional information shed a different light on the role Francis Eppes played in the founding of our University and brings into question the justification for his recognition.”
Thrasher found those discoveries agreeable and now plans to relocate the statue with an accompanying marker that more accurately describes Eppes’ efforts that led to the university’s formation.
Roberts wrote the state Supreme Court’s 1957 majority opinion to deny law school admission to an African-American student, Virgil Hawkins. This action is considered a pro-segregation opinion that defines a “more troublesome legacy” than his “instrumental role” in spawning the university’s law school, writes Thrasher.
“To keep the name of B.K. Roberts on the law school building would continue to honor someone whose decisions and actions do not reflect Florida State University’s values or the rule of law,” continues Thrasher.
The university will now seek legislative action to change the name of the law school building. Approval of a repealer bill is needed to formally remove the Legislature’s 1973 designation.
Thrasher spawned the panel in October after the racially charged, violent riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. Then, Thrasher condemned the white supremacist movement behind the riots. The panel met nine times throughout the academic year.