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Amidst charges of racism against Flannery O’Connor, Loyola University Maryland renames residence hall

Thirteen years after he named a new residence hall at Loyola University Maryland in honor of Flannery O’Connor, Jesuit Father Brian Linnane has removed the prominent Catholic writer’s moniker from the building.

The structure will now be known as “Thea Bowman Hall,” named in honor of the first African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

Sister Thea, a Mississippi native, was a tireless advocate for greater leadership roles for Blacks in the Catholic Church and for incorporating African-American culture and spiritual traditions in Catholic worship in the latter half of the 20th century. Her sainthood cause is under consideration in Rome.

The Flannery O’Connor Residence Hall at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore is being renamed in honor of Sister Thea Bowman effective immediately. (Courtesy Loyola University Maryland)

O’Connor, a Southern Gothic writer who died of lupus in 1964 at age 39, is recognized as one of the greatest short-story writers of her era, one whose work often examined complex moral questions. Recent concerns have been raised about her use of racist language in private correspondence, however, prompting more than 1,000 people to sign an online petition asking Loyola to rename the residence hall that bore her name.

Father Linnane, president of Baltimore’s Jesuit university, said it was a difficult decision to remove O’Connor’s name. He noted that the issue of O’Connor and race is very nuanced.

“I am not a scholar of Flannery O’Connor, but I have studied her fiction and non-fiction writings,” Father Linnane said. “Particularly in her fiction, the dignity of African-American persons and their worth is consistently upheld, with the bigots being the object of ridicule.”

The priest noted that some of the new disclosures about O’Connor’s use of racist language date to the 1940s when she was a teenager.

“They don’t take into account any evolution in her thinking,” he said.

Despite that, the priest said, he felt a need to be sensitive to concerns, especially among Loyola students, about O’Connor’s use of racist language and an admission in her correspondence that she did not like people of color.

“A residence hall is supposed to be the students’ home,” Father Linnane said. “If some of the students who live in that building find it to be unwelcoming and unsettling (to have it named for Flannery O’Connor), that has to be taken seriously.”

Sister Thea Bowman, pictured in an undated photo, was the only African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She transcended racism to leave a lasting mark on U.S. Catholic life in the late 20th century. (CNS photo/Beatrice Njemanze, Mississippi Catholic)

Father Linnane said he hoped the decision is not viewed as a wholesale repudiation of O’Connor’s legacy, which he called “stellar.” He also noted that academic freedom will be respected in the classroom and professors will continue to assign the study of O’Connor as they see fit.

“We were looking to name the building for someone who reflects the values of Loyola and its students at the present time and whose commitment to the fight for racial equality – from an intellectual point of view and from a faith perspective – would be more appropriate for the residence hall.”

Father Linnane said a committee advised him on the renaming proposal. Loyola is undergoing a larger review of all the names of its buildings, he said.

“We are looking at who these people were and what they stood for,” he said.

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a former Loyola professor who currently serves as the associate director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York, is spearheading an effort to have Loyola reconsider the decision to remove O’Connor’s name.

An expert on O’Connor’s life and writings who recently completed a book called “Racial Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor,” O’Donnell agrees that one of Loyola’s buildings should be named in honor of Sister Thea, but that O’Connor’s name should not be banished.

O’Connor grew up in the virulently racist culture of the American South, O’Donnell said, and could not help but be influenced by that culture. But the writer, she said, should be celebrated for opposing that culture and opposing racism in her stories and other writings.

Over the course of her career, O’Connor became more bold and more outspoken in her opposition to the “inburnt beliefs” of her fellow Southerners and Americans, O’Donnell said.

“I find it ironic that her name would be removed from a Catholic, Jesuit university,” said O’Donnell, a former parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi in Baltimore, noting that O’Connor portrayed America and the human soul as deeply divided, broken and flawed, and “much in need of conversion and repentance.” 

Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor is seen in an undated photo. (CNS photo/Floyd Jillson/Atlanta Journal-Constition, via AP, courtesy “Flannery”)

O’Connor held herself, her racist white characters and all white people up for judgment, O’Donnell said.

“She lays claim to America’s original sin of racism, seeks atonement, and she atones,” O’Donnell said, noting that even on her deathbed, O’Connor was working on a story about white racists who arrive at the difficult knowledge of their sin.

The Fordham professor wrote a letter to Father Linnane signed by more than 80 authors, scholars and other leaders, urging the priest to keep O’Connor’s name on the building. Among the signatories are leading American authors, including Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez and Mary Gordon. Los Angeles Bishop Robert Barron, a prominent Catholic intellectual, also signed it.

A July 27 statement from Walker is included in the letter saying that “we must honor Flannery for growing.”

“Hide nothing of what she was, and use that to teach,” the well-known African-American novelist said.

The letter to Father Linnane asserts that very few, if any, of the great writers of the past can survive the “purity test” they are currently being subject to.

“If a university (Catholic or otherwise) effectively banishes Flannery O’Connor, why keep Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky and other writers who were marked by the racist, misogynist, and/or anti-Semitic cultures and eras they lived in the midst of? No one will be left standing,” it said.

O’Donnell took issue with a recent article in The New Yorker magazine about O’Connor and race, which she believes provided a “very incomplete” portrayal of the writer’s stance on race and which has fanned much of the outrage against the Southern author.

Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Thea Bowman, seated, leads the singing of “We Shall Overcome” during the U.S. bishops’ summer meeting in South Orange, N.J., June 19, 1989. Bishop John Ricard, then an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, stands right. From left are then-Atlanta Archbishop Eugene Marino and Albert Raboteau. (CNS photo)

The Fordham professor was also critical of the online petition on renaming the Loyola building, which asserts that “recent letters and postcards written by Flannery O’Connor express strong racist sentiments and hate speech.”

“How could O’Connor have written ‘recent’ post cards and letters when she’s been dead for 56 years?” O’Donnell said. “I wonder how many of the people who signed the petition have studied O’Connor’s work or have read any of her writings? How many of them have any connection to Loyola?”

Father Linnane said most people in the Loyola community have responded “very positively” to the name change. He hailed Sister Thea’s efforts to eliminate racism and her work for justice.

A few months before she died of cancer at age 52, Sister Thea gave a presentation on race to American bishops that brought some of them to tears. Bishop John Ricard, then an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and the current superior general of the Baltimore-based Josephites, introduced Sister Thea to the bishops and held her hand as she led the bishops in singing “We Shall Overcome” during the 1989 meeting in New Jersey.

“She lived a life of great holiness,” Father Linnane said.

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org.

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