The library at Fresno State University was until recently named for Henry Maddden, an unrelentingly antisemitic former Fresno State librarian. (Photo/file)
The library at Fresno State University was until recently named for Henry Maddden, an unrelentingly antisemitic former Fresno State librarian. (Photo/file)

Why rename Fresno State library now? Because history is our guide

In 1935, Columbia University doctoral student Henry Miller Madden launched into one of his characteristic antisemitic tirades in a letter to a friend. “The Jews: I am developing a violent and almost uncontrollable phobia against them,” he wrote, before using a series of dehumanizing epithets to detail the specifics of his hatred.

Eighty-six years later, those odious words would be among those that led California State University, Fresno — my university — to launch an inquiry into renaming its campus library, which has carried Madden’s name since 1981.

Madden served as the university’s librarian from 1949 until 1979. His virulently antisemitic views apparently went undiscovered for decades until the publication of my 2018 book, “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States.”

Fresno State’s move is only the most recent example of institutions examining the individuals being commemorated in public venues.

In late 2020, CSU Northridge announced it would remove the name of former campus president Delmar T. Oviatt from its library following accusations of racism.

Months earlier, Stanford University removed the name of its former president, David Starr Jordan, from several facilities and a road. Jordan, a naturalist, was an avowed eugenicist who harbored and espoused racist views.

That same summer, Princeton University renamed its School of Public and International Affairs to remove the name of former President Woodrow Wilson, who held racist views, embraced segregation and signed a eugenic sterilization law as governor of New Jersey.

The close proximity of these announcements prompts a question: Why now?

Certainly, Wilson’s views were known before the summer of 2020. Jordan was publishing racist tracts in 1915 and his papers have been available to researchers for decades.

On its own, changing the names of buildings and streets will not prevent violent acts of hatred. Yet institutions, cities and states are realizing that our public commemoration of the past does contribute to our present.

While the lesser-known Henry Maddens of the world were perhaps able to conceal their hateful views from scrutiny, these men were open about their prejudice and even well known for it.

As I’ve discovered in the process of writing and discussing my book, the reality is that our view of the relationship between history and the present is rapidly changing, and for the better.

For decades, many institutions implicitly took the view that public commemoration was a question of weighing the perceived positives a person had supposedly done versus the less salubrious aspects of their lives.

In 2016, for instance, a Princeton University committee tasked with examining Wilson’s legacy on campus recommended retaining his name on campus. Just four years later, that decision would be overturned.

In those ensuing few years, Americans increasingly realized that there is a relationship between those we commemorate and the world we build for ourselves and the next generations.

Much of this revived awareness emerged from the continuing struggle of Black Americans for equal rights and equal justice.

For instance, Princeton’s board of trustees noted that “the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks drew renewed attention to the long and damaging history of racism in America,” in part prompting the decision to remove Wilson’s name.

Yet we have also seen the simultaneous and unsettling rise of hate across the United States. Scenes that many hoped were relegated to the dustbin of history have visited our television screens and smartphones.

The horrendous scenes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 — where the swastika was carried alongside both the Confederate and American flags — was followed by the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh about 14 months later. The accused gunman apparently was radicalized in part by his online interactions with other antisemites.

RELATED: Fresno State University library named after Jew-hating librarian faces renaming

On its own, changing the names of buildings and streets will unfortunately not prevent these violent acts of hatred from taking place.

Yet institutions, cities and states are increasingly realizing that our public commemoration of the past does contribute to our present.

Place names are a unique form of memorialization that is different from, for instance, statues or monuments.

These physical reminders are designed to celebrate the accomplishments or contributions of a person and inspire new generations to emulate their example — hence the urgency to re-examine Confederate statues.

But place names are an even more living form of commemoration. They force us to keep a person’s name alive and hence their memory remains with us, both collectively and individually.

We casually use the names of people to denote places many times a day, from buildings and streets to parks. In many if not most cases, we have no idea who we are memorializing when we do so.

Americans should always examine their history to re-evaluate those we venerate and memorialize in public spaces. In some cases, new evidence may emerge that leads us to re-evaluate someone’s character. In others, we must honestly assess the evidence that is already available.

It is time to confront the dark corners of our own history and hold up the facts of what our predecessors believed and did to the light of scrutiny. This is not just a matter of historical debate; it’s a question of social justice.

Historians must continue the important work of identifying people we actively commemorate who are unworthy of that honor. It is only by working to expose the truth that we can hope to confront the burdens that our own history so often imposes.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Bradley W. Hart
Bradley W. Hart

Bradley W. Hart is an associate professor in the department of media, communications & journalism at Fresno State. He is the author or co-author of three books, most recently “Hitler's American Friends: The Third Reich's Supporters in the United States.”