USC building renamed in honor of Native American alumnus

One of the USC’s most prominent buildings — stripped last year of the name of a prominent eugenicist and former university president — will instead honor Joseph Medicine Crow, a Native American alumnus who wrote influential works on Indigenous history and culture, served in the United States Army during World War II and was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian recognition.

In an effort to reconcile with a racist chapter in its history, USC banned the name of Rufus B. von KleinSmid of the Center for International and Public Affairs in the heart of the campus. Von KleinSmid held a leading role in the California eugenics movement.

President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to Joseph Medicine Crow in 2009.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

To finalize the transition, the university is planning an initiation ceremony in the spring. In addition to the new name, USC will offer college scholarships to Native American students beginning next fall, as a way to strengthen Medicine Crow’s legacy, USC President Carol L. Folt said.

Students urged the university to remove von KleinSmid’s name after the campus community began to confront his involvement with the Human Betterment Foundation, a Pasadena-based eugenics group that supported a 1909 California law permitting the forced sterilization of those who were considered ‘unsuitable’. Von KleinSmid himself would have believed that people with ‘defects’ should be sterilized.

As the fifth president of the university from 1921 to 1947, von KleinSmid led USC through an expansion that elevated the school. But his stance on sterilization was “in direct line” with the university’s mission of inclusion, Folt said when the university announced the removal. A bust of von KleinSmid was also removed from campus after a unanimous vote of the board’s executive committee.

Folt said there was broad consensus to honor an alum who made a great contribution to society and would inspire students.

“We wanted to make a very different statement than the name that was there before, and we wanted to recognize an alum, a person who has really made a big impact in his community and in the world,” Folt said. “We thought that every student who walked into that building and learned something about it, [Medicine Crow] is going to feel a little prouder and a little stronger about their own beliefs and their own potential.”

Universities across the country have removed the names of campus figures in recent years after phone calls from alumni and students about their controversial or racist legacies. UC Berkeley, UC Hastings College of the Law and CalTech are among those who have stripped buildings or institutions of their titles.

To rename the building, the university assembled the Center for International and Public Affairs Naming Committee, composed of staff, faculty, students and alumni, to identify an alumnus who reflected the values ​​of the university. After collecting more than 200 names, the committee unanimously agreed that Medicine Crow was the right person to honor — and the university got the support of his family.

For Native American students and alumni, the decision makes sense for a group that is often underrepresented in the media and academia.

Mato Standing Soldier, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, graduated from USC in 2020. As a college student, it became clear over the years that von KleinSmid’s role in supporting the eugenics movement needed to be addressed, he said.

As president of the Native American Student Assembly, he participated in conversations to ensure that the university stood for students in the community. The naming for Medicine Crow shows Native students that a path in higher education is a space they too can occupy, he noted.

“In many of these predominantly white institutions, Indigenous children can be very silenced, and very underrepresented and very marginalized,” Standing Soldier said. “Seeing a name that is unashamedly Native can go a really long way.”

Raegan Kirby, a USC junior and board member of the Native American Student Assembly, said she saw the naming as an example of cultural appreciation and shows how the university is taking the step of appreciation over appropriation. She added that for prospective Native students, it could give them “a little peace of mind” knowing they are represented at the school.

Born in 1913 on the Crow Reservation in Montana, Medicine Crow served as the last chieftain of the Apsaalooké (Crow) Nation. He graduated from USC in 1939 with a master’s degree in anthropology, the first of his tribe to earn a master’s degree. He was on his way to a PhD when World War II broke out. During his service, Medicine Crow captured 50 horses from a Nazi camp and fought hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he spared. USC later gave him a honorary doctorate.

In 2009, former President Obama awarded Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Speaking at the White House ceremony, Obama said Medicine Crow’s life “reflects not only the warrior spirit of the Crow people, but also America’s highest ideals.”

He died in April 2016 at age 102.

Ron Medicine Crow, his son, said the family was grateful that the university honored his father, who talked about his days as a student at USC and how he became friends with players on the soccer team. His father decided to go to USC after learning from his uncle that they were offering scholarships for Native Americans, he recalls. When his mom and dad got married, they traveled to Los Angeles and stopped at USC to see the campus.

“We are very pleased and honored that USC wants to do this as a memorial and tribute to Dad,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to visiting Los Angeles for the dedication ceremony and “following in my father’s footsteps on the grounds of USC campus.”

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