Little Hall at the University of Maine campus in Orono could soon be renamed for Beryl Williams. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The University of Maine System trustees will soon vote on placing the name of a Black educator and civil rights figure on an Orono lecture hall that for decades carried the name of a eugenics advocate and spokesperson for the tobacco industry.

University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy is recommending that the trustees rename the hall after Beryl Williams, an educator born in Bangor who was the first Black person to earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at UMaine in 1935. Williams was later noted for her work at Baltimore’s historically Black Morgan State University, where she was the first woman appointed to the deanship. She also participated in the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

The hall on the Orono campus was formerly named after Clarence Cook Little, who was president of the University of Maine from 1922 to 1925. While his tenure is generally seen as successful, many view him negatively due to his support for eugenics and for denying the link between cancer and cigarettes while he was the scientific director of a tobacco industry trade group.

Student pressure to rename the building, which had featured Little’s name since 1966, helped spur the creation of a task force by Ferrini-Mundy last year that concluded that Little’s name should be removed. The trustees voted to rename the building last September, though they didn’t pick a replacement name at that time.

The board of trustees’ Finance, Facilities, and Technology Committee will take up renaming the building after Willams at a meeting on May 5. The full board is expected to take it up on May 24, University of Maine System spokesperson Dan Demeritt said.

Williams was part of a number of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, National Council of Negro Women and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. UMaine honored Williams, who died in 1999, with a doctorate of pedagogy degree in 1972.

Little once served as president of the American Eugenics Society. Eugenicists generally advocate for improving the human species by promoting those viewed to be genetically strong and excluding those viewed as having negative or weak qualities. Such views are today associated with scientific racism and white supremacy.

Last month, the university system instituted a policy for changing or removing a building’s name when the use of an honoree’s name could harm the system’s reputation.

UMaine is not the only institution that has grappled with Little’s legacy. The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, which Little founded in 1929, removed his name from an auditorium last year because of his connection to the eugenics movement.

In 2018, the University of Michigan removed Little’s name from a science building on campus, citing his support for eugenics and the tobacco industry. Little was president of that university from 1925 to 1929.