A crew member stood atop a yellow scaffolding with a hammer and chisel Friday afternoon, and, letter by letter, removed Troy H. Middleton's name from LSU's main library.

Two hours had passed since the LSU Board of Supervisors approved a unanimous motion to remove Middleton's name from the library, an anticipated move that school leadership said is aimed at removing racist symbols from campus.

Nearly a dozen people applauded when the final letter was removed from the brick and tossed into the metal pile in the grass. They had come to see Middleton's name removed for themselves: a group of Black women clapping in the walkway, a young White man standing atop a park bench, an older White man shaking his head with hands on hips. The letters, a school official said, will be stored on campus until further notice.

Ugo Njoku, 20, looked up at the building wearing a mask, the lingering image of the coronavirus pandemic.

"A lot of Black people have used this building over time for projects and things like that," said Njoku, an LSU junior. "Just the lingering veil of racism and the fact that you weren't welcome here — that being taken away is a beautiful thing."

Middleton, a former LSU president and Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army during World War II, has a troubled legacy that surrounds multiple accounts that said he made efforts to maintain segregation.

Prior to Friday's board meeting, LSU's University Naming Committee unanimously approved removing Middleton's name "based on his efforts to deny American citizens from enjoying the equal rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution," according to the board agenda.

The Middleton family denounced the decision, and LSU interim President Tom Galligan said he met with members of the family for over an hour Wednesday night "to talk it through."

Woody Jenkins, a former State Representative from 1972-2000 who knew Middleton, spoke in his defense before the Board of Supervisors on Friday. Jenkins said Middleton's words reflected the times in which he lived and urged board members to take into context "the entire history of this man."

Jenkins said Middleton enforced the Civil Rights Act when he was appointed chairman of the Governor's Biracial Commission on Human Relations, Rights and Responsibilities in 1965, and said Middleton "was at the forefront" during racial crises in Alexandria, Opelousas, Ferriday and Bogalusa. 

Supervisor James Williams used his own family history to counter Jenkins' assertion that Middleton's words reflected "this was just the way it was at the time." Williams said his great-grandfather, a White man, married his great-grandmother, a Black woman, in Mississippi in 1920.

Williams also said that Middleton's troubled legacy is more than "just a few stray comments," most notably in a letter on desegregation he wrote to former University of Texas Chancellor Harry Ransom in 1961 that said LSU still kept black students "in a given area."

Williams cited a letter from Middleton dated May 1, 1956, which said: "I do not want Negro students at LSU. I believe in segregation of races, and, no matter what may come, I shall not associate with Negroes."

Williams said he "physically gagged" when he read archived minutes from a Board of Supervisors meeting in which Middleton, as LSU president, said the university has "repeatedly made it clear it does not want Negro students."

After Ernest "Dutch" Morial became the first African American to receive a law degree from LSU in 1954, Williams said Middleton "devised behind his back to never again have black students become lawyers through LSU." (Morial became the first African American mayor of New Orleans in 1978.)

Jenkins, who is White, said LSU was overlooking Middleton's heritage within military service, a highly decorated career in the U.S. Army in which he was an influential figure in the European theatre of World War II.

Supervisor Jimmie Woods, who is Black, said that his personal memory is "filled with the pain of lynchings. It is filled with the pain of Jim Crow laws. It is filled with discrimination at every level. It is filled with hatred towards me and my race, simply because of my race. So I ask: whose heritage is being disrespected and disparaged if the Middleton name remains?”

Gov. John Bel Edwards virtually addressed the board before its unanimous decision, saying "it is time for the name of the library to be changed."

Edwards noted that Friday was Juneteenth — a date that commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States — and said "in 2020, we value diversity" and "we have to engage in hard, uncomfortable conversation" and "as we listen, we have to actually hear."

The Middleton family called the action taken by the board, Galligan and Edwards "reprehensible" and expressed "sincere thanks and gratitude" for the public support they received.

"By its actions, the Board has chosen to publicly dishonor a great American war hero and Louisiana public servant in order to satisfy the passions of the moment," the family said in a statement. "Aside from that, the Board's actions have set a precedent for the whitewashing of every building on the Baton Rouge campus. No building on campus, nor many aspects of LSU's storied athletic tradition, is safe from erasure after today's actions by the Board."

Board of Supervisors Chair Mary Werner said a committee is already in place to evaluate every building's name at LSU, and Black student leadership has compiled a list of 12 buildings they want renamed.

The removal of Middleton's name from LSU's main library is the most recent action in a national trend of removing symbols and statues associated with racism in the wake of national protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

On Saturday, New Orleans protesters took down a Duncan Plaza statue of John McDonogh — a slave owner who left the bulk of his fortune to New Orleans and Baltimore for the building of public schools — and tossed it in the Mississippi River.

On Thursday, the Southeastern Conference issued a statement that it will consider not playing sporting championships in Mississippi until its state flag, which includes the image of the Confederate flag, is changed.

On Friday, the NCAA Board of Governors expanded its Confederate flag policy to prevent any NCAA championship events from being played in states where the symbol has a "prominent presence."

The removal of Middleton's name comes almost two weeks after LSU apologized for its bungled initial response to a viral video of an incoming student yelling a racial slur.

LSU announced Monday that the confirmed admitted student, Drew Dollar, will not be enrolled at the school in the fall.

Black student leaders met with LSU leadership on June 8 to resolve the situation, and the initial response, students in attendance said, made it seem like there was no process in place to hold the incoming student accountable. But, during the meeting, Galligan and school administrators made it clear that a process was indeed in place.

The initial response threatened to undermine the efforts Galligan and LSU administrators made to engage the campus' black community in the midst of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial inequality.

On June 3, Galligan stepped in the middle of a circle of about 300 people at a student-organized protest, BlackOutLSU, near Middleton Library and said into a loudspeaker "black lives matter."

"So I pledge," Galligan said then, "for as long as I am your interim president, that I will work with you to do something about it. All right? And the place to start is home, what can we do on our campus to make it a better place."

On June 10, LSU made a joint announcement with black student leaders that it would remove Middleton's name, bust and anything associated with his name in the building, pending board approval.

“It’s historical," said Devin Woodson, an LSU junior and co-chair of the LSU Black Male Leadership Initiative. "Not only for the black students but also for the board and for administration, because this is showing us that we have done our part to put in the work and now the administration has done their part to put in the work. I think it speaks so much to LSU’s page actually turning than any talk about it."


Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.