As a national debate rages over renaming buildings and military bases, tearing down controversial statues and rethinking whom they memorialize, Nicholls State University is unusually positioned.

The university on Bayou Lafourche is the only one in Louisiana named after a Confederate, a brigadier general from the Civil War. But at a time when any association with the Confederacy has rung a death knell for the namesakes of some historical figures, the Nicholls name may yet survive the purge — after a fashion. Several Nicholls students, alumni and administrators say their focus is not necessarily on renaming the university, but on ensuring that they’ve disassociated the name of the school from the man it’s named after, Francis T. Nicholls.

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Gov. Francis Tillou Nicholls Twice Governor of Louisiana (1876-1879; 1888-1892) Few events in Louisiana history have been as dramatic as the blow Gov. Francis T. Nicholls inflicted upon the state lottery racket in 1888. Nicholls was the first Democratic governor in Louisiana since the Civil War.

That’s led to difficult conversations, as university leaders and students consider how to avoid continuing to pay homage to the Confederacy while hanging onto a name that has taken on a brand of its own — such as Nicholls State — even if it came from a person whose legacy long ago lost its sheen. Francis Nicholls fought in the Civil War, became a two-term Louisiana governor and then the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, and spent his final years living in Thibodaux.

But apart from Nicholls having lived in the area, his history has little to do with Nicholls State, known these days for its colonel mascot and renowned culinary institute. Though it’s named after a rebel, it has a diverse population. More than 18% of Nicholls students are Black, and 30% of their students are races other than White.

“Nicholls is more than just a name,” said Cydneé Mills, the president of the Nicholls chapter of the NAACP, and a senior studying dietetics.

While Nicholls’ name has so far been spared, that hasn’t been true for every Confederate with a presence on campus. University administrators announced this summer that they would rename buildings named after the Confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Leonidas Polk, after a lengthy process where they surveyed students and alumni about how to make the campus more inclusive. Streets named after plantations are also getting new names. That was welcome news for Mills, her mother and grandmother — both Nicholls alumni — who she said pushed for such changes when they attended decades ago.

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Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Nicholls President Jay Clune announced the removal of names P.G.T. Beauregard Hall and Leonidas K. Polk Hall, now called the College of Science and Technology and the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, respectively. The university has also removed many of its campus street signsÑall of which were named after a Louisiana plantation or plantation owner. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Dr. Jay Clune, the university’s president, said the origin of naming streets after plantations dated to the 1960s, when the student government association thought it would be helpful to link the university to plantation visits as those gained popularity. At the time, many students had an unrealistic, rose-colored view of the era of slavery, infused by movies like “Gone With the Wind” that glossed over the violence and brutality endemic to the practice.

Students today, on the other hand, have a much more accurate understanding of slavery’s cruelty, he said. It was a relatively easy call to delete the names for the two buildings and streets, given their lack of connection to campus to begin with, he said.

“It’s one thing if you choose to visit a plantation,” Clune said. “It’s very different for someone to bring the plantation to you.”

Mills and Iriel Nunnery, president of the Black Women’s Leadership Association at Nicholls, both applauded the move and the conversations they’ve had with administrators about how to make campus more inclusive. But they said there’s more work to be done.

“There’s a lot of speculation over the name of the university itself, as well as the name of E.D. White Hall,” said Ethan Naquin, the university’s Student Government Association president. White was a Confederate soldier who pushed for a restoration of white supremacy after Reconstruction and eventually became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nunnery said that she wants to, at the very least, talk about the Nicholls name.

“It’s just like, why not talk about it?” Nunnery said. “I feel like if Nicholls really wants to show their progression and how serious they are, they’re going to have to make some tough calls. Nobody should not feel comfortable coming to this school. This is a wonderful school with beautiful people.”

Clune and Steven Kenney, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Nicholls, said they’re open to the conversation. But they said the feedback so far from their campus community and alumni has been clear: People have largely objected to the street names and building names, but not the university name itself.

Clune said that may be because Francis Nicholls was known less for his military service in the Confederacy officer than for his political career. He said that Nicholls and White were the two most well-known and prominent figures connected to Thibodaux when the university got its name.

“I don’t think people associate Nicholls with Francis T. Nicholls, they associate Nicholls with that university in Thibodaux, Louisiana,” Clune said. “The name itself, I think, quickly became associated with the university and really ceased to be associated with the man.”

From a namesake standpoint, Nicholls may have more in common with several private universities than its public peers. Paul Tulane was a major donor to the Confederacy before donating the money that led to Tulane University being named after him. Yale University was named after a famous slave trader, Rice University was named after a slave owner, Washington and Lee invokes the commander of the confederate army.

While those campuses have had similar debates about buildings, statues and other memorials, all have held onto their historic university names and brands. Yale, in fact, created a committee to “establish principles on renaming,” whose 2016 report has helped to guide the University of Louisiana System through this process, according to system President Dr. Jim Henderson. Nicholls is part of that system.

“Elihu Yale, certainly not a person that you would honor today,” Henderson said. “But does Yale University belong to him, a slave trader? Or does it belong to this university that’s been a bastion of academic excellence?”

The Yale report recommends that university leaders consider several questions during renaming debates, emphasizing that namesakes on campuses should be about their “principal legacy,” rather than lesser-known details about their life. Among the questions:

  • is the person’s ”principal legacy” at odds with the university’s mission?
  • was the person’s “principal legacy” significantly contested during their lifetime?
  • did the university honor the person for reasons at odds with its mission?
  • does a building that’s named after someone whose “principal legacy” is at odds with the university’s mission “play a substantial role in forming community” there?

“It goes back to, what does that name represent?” Henderson said. “That name represents a university on the bayou that has been the source of knowledge and the economic driver for that region for decades. In other words, the name belongs to the university, not to a person.”

But who exactly was Francis T. Nicholls? He certainly fit in with other so-called Bourbon Democrats of his time, according to historians.

"Like most Bourbons, he considered disfranchisement a logical solution to the problem of what to do with illiterate voters, both black and white,” wrote historian Joseph G. Dawson III in his book, “The Louisiana Governors.”

“He acquiesced in a gradual reduction of state funding for public schools, which resulted in nearly three generations of Blacks being educationally handicapped,” Dawson wrote.

Nicholls also looked the other way during the 1891 lynchings of 11 Italian-American New Orleanians after several Italian immigrants were acquitted on charges that they killed the New Orleans police chief. As a mob of thousands formed to storm the prison, calling out anti-Italian slurs and planning to kill the men themselves, Nicholls declined to intervene, saying he couldn’t do so without a request from the mayor, according to newspaper archives.

At the same time, Nicholls — who has a street that runs from the French Quarter out through Mid-City named for him — also built a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader. He took on the famously sleazy Louisiana Lottery during his second term in office, and eventually won that battle when the federal government stepped in to outlaw selling lottery tickets via mail. And he oversaw the constitutional convention of 1879, which led to the creation of Southern University.

For Dr. Charles Vincent, a Southern University history professor, that’s not enough.

“I know there will be a lot of pushback probably, but I do think they should reconsider their name,” Vincent said. “I could never understand how you would honor these people who tried to divide the country and tear it down.”

In New Orleans, the School Board voted in the 1990s to change the name of Francis T. Nicholls High School in Bywater to Frederick Douglass High School. But were momentum to ever coalesce around changing the Thibodaux university’s name, it would be a far heavier lift: state law requires university name changes to be approved by the university board, the state Board of Regents and the Legislature.

“The naming conversation is a proxy for a much larger conversation around inclusion and diversity, and ensuring that our campuses are welcoming environments for all students,” Henderson said.

“Any conversation of substance is going to be uncomfortable,” he added. “You have to stretch if you’re going to achieve any significant change or progress.”


Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com