“This building is a call from my great-grandfather that the study of government and law and civil rights is no less important than economics or engineering or medicine, but rather at the core of all that we do and say here in America,” said S. Dillard Kirby ’81 at Lafayette’s 80th anniversary celebration of the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights.
Hundreds attended the rededication ceremony Oct. 20, which marked the history of the building and the new exhibits in the lobby illustrating the progress of civil rights over the past eight decades at Lafayette and across the nation.
“Inspired by a vision of civil rights 80 years ago, this building will continue to nurture the broadening, deepening, and strengthening of that ideal in the years to come. But at its core, it remains what it has always been, a place where dedicated faculty inspire bright and eager young people,” said Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss. “As we rededicate Kirby Hall in 2010, we also rededicate ourselves to the core mission it supports-the transformation of young lives.”
Lecture and Discussion with Taylor Branch
Speakers at the ceremony included Kirby, president of the F.M. Kirby Foundation and a great-grandson of the building’s donor, Fred Morgan Kirby; former U.S. attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach, whose father, Edward L. Katzenbach, former attorney general of New Jersey, spoke at the original dedication in 1930; and Karen LeSage ’10, who represented the Kirby Hall Working Group. The evening concluded with a lecture from the College’s Lives of Liberty series and a book signing by Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., in Skillman Library. The next morning, Branch hosted an informal discussion with students on civil rights issues in America today.
Katzenbach reflected on his role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the drafting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“The significance of the 1964 Civil Rights Act lay in the fact that both political parties in Congress came together to support the claims that blacks and women deserve equal opportunity in our society,” he said. “Thanks to television and the free press, the general public saw in their own living rooms what was occurring in the Deep South and sought an end to unjustified violence. For the first time, a filibuster aimed at defeating civil rights legislation was itself defeated by the votes of over 70 senators in both parties. It didn’t put an end to bias or prejudice, but it refused to condone lawlessness.”
Designed by Whitney Warren, the architect of Grand Central Terminal, Kirby Hall of Civil Rights was the first building in America dedicated exclusively to the study of government and law. Fred Morgan Kirby, cofounder of the F.W. Woolworth Co., donated $590,000 to construct the building in 1929 as the headquarters of Lafayette’s department of government and law.
Planning for the rededication began several years ago as a student-led initiative. Concerns had been raised about the context and meaning of wording and design choices on the exterior and interior of the building, specifically the phrase “Anglo-Saxon ideals of liberty,” which appears in Kirby Hall’s dedicatory plaque from 1930.
“The way Americans view civil rights has obviously changed dramatically over the past eight decades,” said Weiss. “Our students, in particular, were eager to see this building reflect more recent developments and new ideas.”
Numerous representatives from the student body met with Weiss, and the Kirby Hall Working Group, comprised of students, faculty, and staff, was formed.
“We [were] challenged to make the physical spaces of our campus reflect the diverse and inclusive nature of our Lafayette family,” said LeSage. “If students didn’t feel welcome within their own academic spaces, how could they excel academically?”
The group met biweekly and collected a year’s worth of research and feedback and transformed that hard work into the current exhibits, which, LeSage says, “more accurately reflect the progress made by civil rights activists.” The exhibitry includes a timeline of the history of civil rights, pieces on prominent members of the Civil Rights Movement, an artwork series by painter Faith Ringgold entitled “Declaration of Freedom and Independence,” and a supplementary plaque that provides better insight and context concerning the dedicatory plaque from 1930.
“Within one year of the group’s establishment, the artwork in this building has been updated to better reflect prominent figures in the struggle for civil rights,” said LeSage. “We have given the dedicatory plaque context so that its message will no longer be misinterpreted. With the additions to this foyer, the space welcomes guests and provides members of our community with snapshots of the progress made by our predecessors. ”
Kirby Hall was F.M. Kirby’s second magnificent gift to the College. In 1920, he gave Lafayette $100,000 to endow the first professorship in civil rights in the United States. F.M. Kirby first became involved with Lafayette in 1911, when his son, Allan Price Kirby ’15, began attending the College. F.M. Kirby began a lifetime of deep involvement and generosity to Lafayette, including serving as a trustee from 1916-40. Allan Kirby founded Lafayette’s Alumni Association and was a trustee from 1937 until his death in 1973. The Kirby family’s remarkable support of Lafayette continues to the present.