CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A private college in West Virginia said Wednesday it is removing the name of the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd from its health center, saying his name had caused “divisiveness and pain” without explicitly noting his complicated past on racial matters.
Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s but subsequently denounced the organization. He served in the Senate for 51 years and died in 2010 at age 92.
Bethany College President Tamara Rodenberg said on the school’s website that Byrd’s name will be removed from the college’s Robert C. Byrd Health Center “to demonstrate Bethany College’s capacity to change, to listen, and to learn.”
Bethany’s statement did not specifically mention Byrd’s past ties to the Klan.
“Our lives are marked by decisions, by actions, and by grace, and today we embrace all three in a tangible, visible way at our beloved Bethany College,” Rodenberg wrote.
Bethany College’s statement said the college recognized in the past few weeks that Byrd’s name attached to the health center “created divisiveness and pain for members of Bethany community, both past and present.”
While the college said it respects the Byrd family name, “we can no longer let it represent how we lead in today’s world.”
Protests have erupted around the world since the death last month of George Floyd in Minnesota, a black man who died after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for air. Much of the conversation has focused on systematic racism and police brutality against black people in the United States.
Byrd, a Democrat, brought billions of dollars to his home state as the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. His name is attached to dozens of buildings, roads, schools, scholarships and other public works projects in West Virginia.
In 2010, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton gave speeches at memorial service for Byrd at the state Capitol in Charleston.
His accomplishments followed a childhood of poverty in West Virginia, and his success on the national stage came despite a complicated past on racial issues. While supporting later civil rights bills, he opposed busing to integrate schools.
As a young man, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a time, and he joined Southern Democrats in an unsuccessful filibuster against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. He later apologized for both actions, saying intolerance has no place in America.
A private liberal arts college founded in 1840, Bethany is located about 45 miles (70 kilometers) southwest of Pittsburgh.