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In ‘pursuit of racial justice,’ University of Miami to rename George Merrick structure

·5 min read

The University of Miami announced this week that it will remove the name of George Merrick from a parking structure on Merrick Drive over concerns raised by students and alumni that, during his lifetime, the university and Coral Gables founder engaged in racist behavior that disenfranchised Miami’s Black communities.

Merrick’s history as chair of the Dade County Planning Board sparked a reckoning among students and alumni, who last July sent an eight-page letter to President Julio Frenk asking for Merrick’s name to be wiped from campus buildings. Students sent a letter in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, at a time when many other campuses across the country were forced to confront their links to racism.

Merrick’s proposals on the planning board “perpetuated a wealth gap for Black residents and broad inequities in our community that persist to this day,” the school acknowledged in a Monday statement announcing the changes, which included a decision to rename a Frost School of Music rehearsal hall currently named after Henry Fillmore, a composer who used racist caricatures to promote his more popular works.

“Our actions today acknowledge the pain and the promise of our Black students, alumni, colleagues, and neighbors while intentionally choosing to learn from and build on our history,” the school wrote. “We engaged in serious deliberations about our past, our future, and our ongoing pursuit of racial justice.”

Coral Gables founder George Merrick.
Coral Gables founder George Merrick.

In addition to renaming the parking structure and rehearsal hall, the school will also name its new student services building for a distinguished Black alum.

Landon Coles, a junior political science major and the university’s newly elected student government president, said the Monday announcement was “a step forward” and a “big moment for progress.”

Coles, who recently served as the university’s Black student union president, helped author the initial letter to university leaders and served as a student representative on the Historic Review Committee on Naming, a group formed to advise Frenk on renaming buildings and streets that may no longer be in line with the university’s values.

Coles, 20, said the Monday announcement is “a signal by the university administration that we are making progress here.”

“We know we have to remain vigilant, we have to keep making forward progress,” he said.

The original petition by students was for the school to change the name of the Solomon G. Merrick building, home to the School of Education. The building, named after Coral Gables’ founder George Merrick’s father, was part of the initial gift when the Merricks donated the land to the university in 1925.

The students worked with historians to bring to light some of George Merrick’s actions on the planning board. In 1937, for example, a “Negro Resettlement Plan” was proposed to relocate Black community members to the “least preferred locations outside of the Miami city limits,” according to meeting minutes from the time. The proposal was never put into action.

The petition was first presented to the university’s Board of Trustees at a July meeting, and the students were told that renaming the education school building requires returning the land and the money used to pay for the building, which was not possible. The parking structure, however, will be given a “neutral, directional name.”

Opposition asks university to reverse course

Not every member of the university agrees with the Monday decision.

Law student Amanda Rose, a member of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables, is circulating a petition against the decision and penned a letter to university leadership in opposition.

In the letter, she asked the university to reverse its decision on the Merrick parking structure and to also create an “on-campus historic preservation and architectural revival organization.”

“There is a current phenomenon to rename and tear down our history and our founders’ legacies,” she wrote. “When I witnessed this manifest in my own community, I felt compelled to act.”

The Merrick House, 907 Coral Way, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, in Coral Gables. The house was the childhood home of Coral Gables Founder George Merrick. Daniel Bock/Miami Herald)
The Merrick House, 907 Coral Way, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, in Coral Gables. The house was the childhood home of Coral Gables Founder George Merrick. Daniel Bock/Miami Herald)

Karelia Martinez Carbonell, president of the same historic association said the group itself opposes the university’s decision.

Merrick’s comments on the planning board were cherry-picked, she said, and the decision doesn’t take into consideration the rest of Merrick’s legacy.

“There are things that you live within your era. He was a man of his time but he was a human,” she said. “He helped the Black community ... he gave money, he built schools and churches. He was just living in that era. He didn’t invent Jim Crow.”

Carbonell said Gables residents weren’t informed about the university’s decision ahead of time, and worry that “cancel culture” will warp their city’s founder’s legacy.

“The trend is, let’s just cancel everything that the other side doesn’t agree with. The community has come together and said enough,” she said, noting that the city will be making a proclamation during the May 26 commission meeting to commemorate the 135th anniversary of George Merrick’s birth.

“They are making him a man that he wasn’t,” she said of Merrick’s detractors.

Change unlikely for the city

As for the city of Coral Gables, where Merrick’s name adorns a luxury shopping mall, a museum built inside Merrick’s childhood home and statue installed in front of City Hall, change is not likely on the horizon.

The city made news recently when it became the only local government in Miami-Dade to reject adding Harriet Tubman’s name to a portion of U.S. 1, known as Dixie Highway for the last 100 years. County commissioners last year endorsed replacing a name often linked with the Confederacy.

In the Gables commission debate on the topic, then-Vice Mayor Vince Lago warned that the pressure to remove the Dixie Highway name could help fuel an effort to remove Merrick’s statue.

The new George Merrick statue by sculptor William Beckwith was unveiled in May of 2006 at Coral Gables City Hall.
The new George Merrick statue by sculptor William Beckwith was unveiled in May of 2006 at Coral Gables City Hall.

“One of my biggest concerns ... was the issue of the fervor that’s growing now in regards to George Merrick,” said Lago, who was recently elected mayor.

In a statement Friday, Gables spokeswoman Martha Pantin said Merrick “was an urban planning visionary who understood the importance an institution of higher learning would play in developing a world-class community.”

She declined to comment on whether the city would take steps to remove Merrick’s name or likeness from any buildings or city structures.

“While like most people he was not perfect, his memory and presence are still very important in and to Coral Gables,” she wrote in an email.

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