Letter to the Editor — Removal of Luther West’s name is just


Joleigh Martinez/NW

CONTROVERSY – Friends and family of Luther West continue to contest NMU’s decision to remove his name from what is now called The Science Building. West was discovered to be a proponent of the eugenics movement, both at NMU and previously at Battle Creek College.

Several months ago, in a letter to the editor defending Northern Michigan University’s decision to remove Luther West’s name from the physical structure now known only as The Science Building, I issued a stern warning to our university community: “Remain vigilant — as people are continuously attempting to distort history for their own self-interests.” 

It should come as no surprise, then, to find out that the effort by close friends and family members of the late West to rehabilitate his fractured image continues today.   

At the beginning of the current academic year, Mark D. West, who is Luther West’s grandson, wrote a letter to the editor arguing that NMU had unjustly sullied his grandfather’s “reputation with allegations of racism and the darkest aspects of eugenics.” In doing so, he apparently contended that the university had ignored evidence provided by the West family incontrovertibly contradicting the university’s serious allegations that West supported the eugenics movement during the early 1900s.   

Taken at face value, however, the “evidence” provided by the West family only shows two things. 

First, when interviewed by Miriam Hilton in 1972 about his experience at Battle Creek College, where he was first employed as an academic, West said the college (prior to its closure in 1938) had been interested in “race betterment” as a general idea — which could potentially come “in any form”— and he emphasized that the college did not embrace scientific racism. 

Second, during his first year of teaching at NMU, West modified the description for one of the courses he taught, replacing the term “eugenics movement” with “eugenics reform.” 

In concluding that their “evidence” exonerates West from the university’s allegations, the West family conveniently ignores the larger context in which West came to teach at Battle Creek College and NMU, not to mention the actions of the man himself. 

For example, as I recounted in some detail in a previous letter to the editor, Dr. J. H. Kellogg, who served as president of both Battle Creek College’s Board of Trustees and the Race Betterment Foundation during the 1920s, publicly espoused racist views over a 20-year period (1881-1901) in two published books — Plain Facts for Old and Young and Ladies Guide in Health and Disease: Girlhood, Maidenhood, Wifehood, Motherhood — prior to his involvement with Battle Creek College. He also helped organize a series of ostensibly academic conferences on “race betterment,” where scientific racism flowed freely among its participants. 

At the First Race Betterment Conference, for instance, which took place in 1914, one professor proclaimed that “the intermarriage of whites and blacks may be bad” because the latter purportedly “have been developed under the tropics and [therefore] have never undergone social discipline.”

Given this disturbing history, when West accepted an academic position at Battle Creek College, an institution largely financed by Kellogg and which served as a vehicle to spread and provide intellectual support for his scientific racism during the 1920s and 30s, West should have known that he was making a conscious decision to work for an institution of high education whose academic mission was inextricably intertwined with scientific racism — which in this case, was also seeped in white supremacy. 

Once he finally arrived at Battle Creek College, though, West did not shy away from showing his strong support for eugenic principles. 

For example, when he attended the Third Race Betterment Conference in 1928, West discussed his support for the creation of a eugenics registry that would place “the truly superior stocks on record” and advocated for “conservative eugenic legislation” and “a conservative sort of popular [eugenics] education.” 

West also embraced eugenics outside of his academic life, serving as a chairman for a local committee of the Fitter Families Contest, a competition in which human “participants (divided into small, medium and large family classes) were ranked based on the mental, physical and moral health of family members.”   

When interviewed about his experience more than 40 years later by Miriam Hilton, West had a difficult choice to make. On the one hand, he could try to whitewash Battle Creek College’s involvement in scientific racism, thereby portraying the college and, by implication, his own time there, in a more favorable light. 

On the other hand, he could have been intellectually honest, even if doing so might impugn his reputation, and acknowledge what we all know today: both the Race Betterment Foundation and Battle Creek College were founded for the purpose of providing intellectual support for scientific racism. 

And West could have admitted that many of his actions while at Battle Creek College were inappropriate — and then expressed regret for his role in supporting scientific racism while there. 

Instead of displaying moral and intellectual courage by admitting his human faults, however, West chose the short-sighted path of cowardice. 

The West family ignores this vital background when continuing to object to NMU’s decision to remove his name from a campus building. Someday I hope that the West family can remember West for who he was — a flawed human — instead of the perfect person they appear to have constructed in their collective memory today.  

Aaron Loudenslager, former North Wind opinion editor (2012)    

Editor’s Note: The North Wind is committed to offering a free and open public forum of ideas, publishing a wide range of viewpoints to accurately represent the NMU student body. This piece is a letter to the editor, written by a reader of the North Wind in response to North Wind content. It expresses the personal opinions of the individual writer, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the North Wind. The North Wind reserves the right to avoid publishing letters that do not meet the North Wind’s publication standards. To submit a letter to the editor contact the opinion editor at [email protected] with the subject North Wind Letter.