A good name
Around the time that Jessie Hathcock, the first Black woman graduate of the University of Dayton, completed her degree in 1930, many in the discipline of philosophy in the United States moved their attention from grand questions about the meaning of life to the study of language and logic. They were keen to figure out what we mean when we call something by a name. The University has named its new computer science home Jessie S. Hathcock Hall.
What does it mean to put her name on a building?
We have given a building a name — the good name of Jessie Hathcock. I am calling her name, Jessie Hathcock, a good name in a sense often used in the Southern Black communities I am from. To name something after Hathcock is a value claim. To name this building after her is not just to give it a place marker for our maps but to affirm the values she embodied. Jessie Hathcock has already lived her life full of good works. She enriched the lives of countless people. Hathcock lived a long life of significant impact and influence. Indeed, this is an honor among many Mrs. Hathcock deserved.
But the naming of the building, ultimately, is for us.
I find myself stuck on a very philosophical question. What does it mean for us to go back into history and pluck Jessie Hathcock’s good name from our student rolls and put it on a beautiful new building?
Perhaps it will mean that each day there is the chance some student will pass through its doors and wonder at the building’s namesake. Maybe they will search for her good name, discover her life of service and recognize a model in her. Wouldn’t all of the teachers among us hope that our students would be as dutiful and hardworking as Hathcock was during her studies? Wouldn’t we love for our students to go on to live rewarding personal and professional lives rooted in their care for others as she did?
If only one student is so inspired and touches the lives of just some fraction of folks Hathcock did, what outstanding work will have been done by naming this building after her good name.
“What outstanding work will have been done by naming this building after her good name.”
Perhaps it will serve us as a marker, physical and visible, of the long and challenging legacy of race and gender inclusion on our campus. Perhaps we can use it to educate ourselves about ourselves. Perhaps we can pause and reflect upon the history of this institution, where a 36-year-old Jessie Hathcock took her classes at night so as not to offend the sentiments of her fellow students. It was not only race that reserved the night classes for Hathcock. She attended those night classes with the handful of other women who graduated UD in 1930. The short-lived women’s college was not established until 1935, allowing women to attend classes during the day for the first time. Perhaps we can pause to see where we’ve been and where we have come as an institution. What did it mean for us that I as a tenured Black woman professor, just a few years older than Hathcock was when she graduated, gave, in the daytime, remarks on the occasion of the building’s dedication when we took up Mrs. Hathcock’s good name for that building?
Perhaps taking up the good name of Jessie Hathcock, we are aspirational. Together, we are responsible, not for the correction of an unjust past that cannot be relived or fixed, but to a present in which we aspire to live up to her good name and to a future in which we will dare create a learning community worthy of her good name. Today, we strive to bring students to UD not just to study under any conditions, but in a thriving, inclusive community worthy of her good name. Perhaps we will take up the good name on this building as a challenge to be better educators, better stewards, better members of the city to which Hathcock dedicated so much of her life.
“Today, we strive to bring students to UD not just to study under any conditions, but in a thriving, inclusive community worthy of her good name.”
Philosophers are often accused of asking more questions than they answer, generating doubt rather than providing the comfort of certainty. But as I spoke in a building graced with the good name of Jessie Hathcock, I was sure of one thing at that moment, something more important and meaningful than what we might speculate upon or hope for.
I was with certainty very glad to be a witness as a University of Dayton building took up the very good name of Jessie S. Hathcock.
James is an associate professor of philosophy and associate dean for assessment and program review at the University of Dayton. This essay is an excerpt from the speech given by James during the dedication event for Hathcock Hall Oct. 22, 2021.