Latent racism at Radford University

The Ku Klux Klan: A dominating force in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1959.

It took five years for Radford University to strip an avowed racist’s name from one of its arts and music buildings.

The university’s board of visitors voted Friday to remove the name of John Powell, a white supremacist in Virginia, from Powell Hall on the Radford campus.

In 2005, history professor Richard Straw and his class “discovered” that Powell, a Richmond-born classical musician, composer and expert on Appalachian folk music, was also founder of the Anglo-Saxon Club of America and heavily involved in passage of Virginia’s racist “Racial Integrity Act of 1924,” a law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. But Virginia does not take interference with its inbred racism easily and did not repeal the act until 1974.

Powell and his brother-in-arms Walter Plecker, Virginia’s state registrar of vital statistics, hated people of color, calling them “polluting,” “undesirable,” “feebleminded” and “mongrel.”

Together, they campaigned not only against blacks but all people of color, including Indians, which they wanted “reclassified” as “colored.”

“Some of these mongrels, finding they have been able to sneak in their birth certificates unchallenged as Indians, are now making a rush to register as white,” Plecker claimed.

Plecker and Powell supported Virginia’s infamous “eugenics” policies, which classified people as “unfit to reproduce” and sent them to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded just outside Lynchburg.  The state sterilized them and then sent them to private homes for work for less than minimum wage for the state or for private citizens.

Virginia’s eugenics system became the model for Adolph Hitler’s despicable program to purge Jews and others from his vision of an all-white German society.

Why did it take Radford University five years to rid the school of the stigma of a building named after a racist?  Acting Provost Joe Scartelli, who served as dean of the college visual and performing arts when Professor Straw and his students “discovered” Powell’s questionable past, says it “just fell off my desk.”

Which sounds, to us like another way of saying he just hoped everybody forgot about it so Radford University could continue honor a racist.

Scartelli claims he wanted to take action when Powell’s sordid history was revealed five years ago but others things took a higher priority and he wasn’t reminded of the need to rename Powell Hall until Christian Trejbel of the Roanoke Times called a couple of weeks ago and asked whatever happened to the plans to do something about the University honoring a racist.

“That bulb went on in my head immediately, and I realized ‘Oh, my god, I’ve got to do something about this,” Scartelli told Tonia Moxley of The Times.

Yeah, right.

The other question is why somebody didn’t to a little research into Powell before naming the building after Powell in 1967, the same year the State Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s “Racist Integrity Act.”

They may teach history at Radford U. but it appears they don’t study it.

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7 thoughts on “Latent racism at Radford University”

  1. Doug, I think it is unfair of you to say that Scartelli “just hoped everybody forgot about it so Radford University could continue honor a racist.” Place the blame squarely on the folks who named the building in the first place. Dr. Scartelli is an exceptionally busy man and, wrong as it may be, renaming the building wasn’t as pressing as other things on his plate. Let’s not call Joe a racist by saying he didn’t act fast enough.

    • I’m sorry Tracy but I have to disagree. I didn’t call Scartelli a racist. I just said he let a racist act stand. I can understanding something being on a back burner for a few months but five years? While Scartelli was not acting provost for the five years he was dean of the division that the building served and he could have pushed for faster action. He didn’t. Why?

  2. I think the better question is *why* did they name the building after him. If he gave all the money to have it built on the condition that his name was put on it, why should they later pull it off?

    How did the name wind up on the building in the first place?

    Better would be leaving it, and then posting a plaque on ‘This was the public opinion of this guy. We leave it to you to determine if he’s nuts or not.’.

    That, heaven forbid, might be educational.


  3. And if he didn’t give all the money for it and/or if that wasn’t a condition of the bequest, then I think those who decided to put that name on that building should themselves be noted on that plaque. Responsibility cuts both ways.


  4. I’m willing to admit there’s “latent racism” all around (and inside) us, including Connecticut Yankees like me, born far from Virginia, but I think you’ll find less of it at Radford University than would be worth a headline.

    I’ve met Joe Scartelli and believe him when he says the idea of dropping Powell’s name could fall off the back of the desk along with plans to renovate the building. (I’ve only been here three years, and you should see what’s fallen off mine.)

    With a revolving door for regents and administrators, faculty budget freezes, and a previously-funded major building project in progress, I can imagine things getting lost.

    Scartelli’s school’s building project that DID get finished is right next door: The Douglas and Beatrice Covington Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Coincidentally, it’s named for the university’s fifth president, not only Radford’s first black president, but the first African-American to head any of Virginia’s traditionally mostly-white universities.

    The late Mr. Powell must have been discordantly spinning in his grave at that one!

    Meanwhile, Radford’s PR folks proudly announced last month that its retention rate for black students is better than most schools —

    If the line “fighting latent and inbred racism” were on a T-shirt, I like to think it would fit RU. Hmm. Maybe I can interest some students in an “RU-FLAIR” campaign and get the Carolina Chocolate Drops to campus to celebrate Appalachian culture at the same time.

  5. The movement that Powell represented was wide-spread and much more complex than your post would lead the reader to believe, Doug. There were many prominent intellectuals of that era who firmly believed in eugenics – Powell was by no means the only one. A more careful browsing of the issue reveals startling parallels between the hatred and bigotry during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s and the hatred and bigotry promoted by Fox News, the Tea Party, Palin, Beck, and Limbaugh these days. The common link between the eras? Economic distress.

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