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From ‘Helms’ to ‘Hawks’

MURFREESBORO – The building which has housed athletic facilities at Chowan University for decades will now bear a new name: Hawks Athletic Center.

The decision was made by the University’s Board of Trustees at a meeting last week after requests were brought forth to change the name. Since its construction in the late 1970’s, the building bore the name of the late Senator Jesse Helms, who represented North Carolina in Congress from 1973 to 2003 where he was a lightning rod when it came to civil rights and gay rights.

“One of the important cornerstones of a University is academic freedom, where ideas should be openly discussed and debated, allowing both sides of an issue to be heard. The Board of Trustees acted in true liberal arts practice by listening and learning, then having a thoughtful discussion to make an informed decision regarding the renaming of the Helms Center,” said a statement from the Board of Trustees and Chairman W. Frank Rose, Jr.

The statement continued to explain the change by noting the “consideration of the impact on current students, faculty, staff, alumni, admissions, and fundraising” and “due to the perception of many that positions taken by Senator Helms were not in keeping with the current mission of Chowan University.”

The name change is effective immediately.

Helms’ aforementioned positions were detailed in a letter sent in early June by Chowan’s history department faculty urging the university to change the name of the building. The News Herald obtained a copy of this letter.

“The Helms Center was built with funds from a donor who promised to cover half the costs as long as the University did two things: cover the other half of the costs and name the building after Senator Jesse Helms,” the letter opened. “The university has benefitted for decades from that largess but it is now time to acknowledge the institutional racism Senator Helms embodied and to change the name.”

The letter included several actions and quotes from Helms throughout the years which illuminated his positions on segregation, Civil Rights, voting, and other topics.

As a campaign publicity director in 1950, he created fliers for his candidate which said, “Wake up, White People” and labeled the competitor as someone who promoted “the mingling of races.”

During the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s while he was an editorialist for WRAL, Helms spoke out many times against activists working towards making a change within the country.

“Crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are facts of life which must be faced,” Helms once said.

He later stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”

After being elected to the US Senate, Helms continued to be outspoken about his ideals. For 16 days, he tried to delay a bill that would make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. In 1982, he voted against reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a piece of legislation which helped remove barriers that prevented Black people from exercising their right to vote.

During his reelection campaign in 1990, he mailed 125,000 flyers to Black voters that incorrectly stated they would be imprisoned if they tried to vote.

The history department letter concluded with, “To be fair, Jesse Helms represented North Carolina for thirty years and did much to benefit the state and the nation, but those accomplishments do not diminish the fact that his beliefs, actions, and reputation for racial discrimination run counter to values and mission of Chowan University. Black Lives Matter and we encourage the university to change the name of the Helms Center.”

Chowan University’s Facebook page posted a message on June 5 from President Dr. Kirk Peterson who recognized that recent events in the country, including protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at hands of a Minneapolis police officer, have revealed concerns about the Helms Center name.

“There are many who have expressed the opinion that this name is a symbol of hate, based on the perceived beliefs and actions of its namesake. Those feelings deserve free, open, and vigorous discussion, followed by an informed decision of the Board of Trustees,” the post read.

In the weeks before the recent Board of Trustees meeting, the university held virtual discussions with students as well as alumni in order to gather information and perspective on the issue.

The newly renamed Hawks Athletic Center will continue to be the main center for athletic department administration and coaches. It houses the school’s basketball and volleyball court, swimming pool, athletic training facilities, locker rooms, and more.

“The new name of the athletic center is in recognition that the building has had significant renovations in recent years, and is a central building for our Hawks competition,” said the Trustee Board statement.

In over four decades of existence, those building renovations have included a new basketball court, aquatic center, weight room, esports room, heating, ventilation, HVAC, and the roof.