Recent Macalester grad, former library student worker, puppet enthusiast and previous student organizer for Proud Indigenous Peoples for Education (PIPE) Jennings Mergenthal ’21 spoke at the Dewitt Wallace Library Monday about their role in renaming the Humanities Building in 2019 from its former signifier Neill Hall. The Department of Multicultural Life hosted the event and served tamales, traditional pre-Columbian food wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves.
Mergenthal presented about and critiqued several of Macalester’s founders and their actions against Indigenous peoples. Several buildings around campus are still named after the benefactors to the college, despite their racist and dehumanizing language against many diverse groups.
Mergenthal also criticized the processes that Macalester’s administration took in their consideration of the student demands to change the name of Neill Hall 2019, saying administration focused more on the reputation of the college than on community-wide considerations.
“Here’s the sort of work performance you can expect from decaying corpse of higher education Macalester College,” Mergenthal said.
Mergenthal gave an overview of the founding fathers of Macalester, all white men that were benefactors to the college. They especially focused on Edward Duffield Neill, a presbyterian missionary who founded Macalester in 1874 after years of supporting settler colonialism in the Dakota-Minnesota territories and advocating for forced assimilation and regulation of native peoples, whom he called “savages” in several of his documented writings.
Neill also was a severe critic of co-educating men and women until his death in 1893. Mergenthal noted that, in concert with the Science Museum of Minnesota where Mergenthal now works, Neill excavated and robbed several mass graves at Saint Paul’s Indian Mounds Regional Park and Cemetery, where Mergenthal also worked previously.
Mergenthal questioned how the administration could not have known about Neill’s problematic politics before they named the now-called Humanities Building after him in 2013 until The Mac Weekly released a special publication devoted to the topic.
Mergenthal said that former Macalester President Brian Rosenberg and the board finally started questioning the still-recent naming of the building after The Pioneer Press and other newspapers in Scotland later picked up on the story of the sordid pasts of Macalester’s founders.
Mergenthal was in a theater production “Letters|Home” in the spring of 2019 that they credit with inspiring Rosenberg to take the name off the Humanities building.
“Here’s what actually happened:…One of the things we had done in the show was a land-mapping thing that involved talking about some of the racist things that Neill said,” Mergenthal said. “President Brian Rosenberg came to the show and I made eye contact with him the whole time.”
Mergenthal claimed that Rosenberg and the board of trustees pulled the rug out from under any further debate when he and the board finally changed the name of Neill Hall suddenly in 2019.
“By coming out ahead and unilaterally renaming it without any sort of organized push, which we [PIPE] were preparing for … by making that look like their choice and their action, that [the board] made their own report, they really stole any chance for broader momentum or a broader consideration of people like Frederick Weyerhaeuser, or people like Franklin Olin,” Mergenthal said.
“But by doing that and preserving the optics of the building and the optics of the college, they avoided having any sort of substantial push to analyze the actual reason the building got famous in the first place,” they said. “The sorts of lack of awareness of history and institutional positionality, and the way that history is done is so often, like, ‘Here’s a founder on a pedestal, this figure is great and perfect.’”
Mergenthal was critical of The Mac Weekly’s work around Macalester’s founders in their publication “Colonial Macalester” on Nov. 1, 2019. The paper, Mergenthal said, was more to advance the journalists’ personal careers and less to bring about systemic change. The Mac Weekly published the issue Colonial Macalester on the work that PIPE had been advocating around for six years previously, capitalizing upon it, according to them.
They also made digs at Macalester’s benefactors such as Frederick Weyerhaeuser, a logging tycoon; engineer and gun manufacturer Franklin Olin; and DeWitt Wallace, the son of one of Macalester’s presidents who later donated significantly to the school after starting Reader’s Digest, and then forced Macalester President James Robinson to cut funding for the Expanded Educational Opportunities program (EEO) in 1974, which his money was largely supporting.
Mergenthal will also speak at the International Roundtable on the topic of student protests and unsettling power relationships.
PIPE members Zoe Allen ’22 and AJ Papakee ’23 helped organize the posters of famous Indigenous leaders placed over official campus building names each year after the renaming of the Humanities Building, and were present at Mergenthal’s teach-in on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“It is just kind of making sure that actions like the concerted effort behind renaming the building don’t go unnoticed, and trying to re-establish a presence on campus,” Allen said. “We put up signs every year that have Indigenous historical figures, so you just walk around campus and see what those look like.”
A previous version of this article quoted the title of the theater production Mergenthal took part in as “Letters Home”. The correct stylization is “Letters|Home”.
A previous version of this article incorrectly named the Macalester president who made cuts to the EEO. It was President James Robinson, not President Arthur Flemming.