YPSILANTI, MI — Eastern Michigan University is asking for name suggestions for a campus theater after learning the previous namesake used blackface in performances.
The Daniel L. Quirk Jr. Building has been home to the School of Communication, Media and Theater Arts (CMTA) since its construction in 1958, EMU President James Smith said in a message to students and staff. After learning of Quirk Jr.’s history, which included theater performances using blackface and mocking African American culture, Smith created a committee to address the legacy of the building and theater.
That committee — which includes CMTA faculty, staff, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, an EMU foundation representative and a member of the Quirk family – recommended changing the name to reflect CMTA’s culture of inclusivity, social justice, unity and commitment to giving a voice to all.
“We view this as an opportunity to reflect on how we live our mission and values going forward as a university,” Smith said. “We challenge ourselves to continually face the injustices of oppression and to build a more accessible, inclusive and equitable campus culture that goes beyond the campus itself.”
According to Ypsilanti Historical Society President Bill Nickels, Quirk Jr. became very interested in theater at a young age. He bought a house on North Huron Street and built an addition on the house to accommodate a small theater, Nickels said.
From there, Quirk Jr. founded the Ypsilanti Players and served as its first director.
Nickels was not aware of the controversy surrounding the building and was surprised to hear about Quirk Jr.’s performances, but he was not surprised that there were theater performances at the time that included blackface.
“The pictures would have been of the Ypsilanti Players, which was an amateur theater group, and I was not aware that the Ypsilanti Players themselves had performances with blackface,” Nickels said.
Quirk Jr. was the great-grandfather of Kathryn C. Quirk, who is on EMU’s renaming committee for the building. She said she first heard of the controversy when Ypsilanti historian Matthew Siegfried posted about her great-grandfather on Facebook.
Quirk’s first reaction was shock, but not necessarily surprise.
“I was unaware of this activity on behalf of my great-grandfather, Quirk said. “Given the generation of his time and his involvement with theater I was not surprised.”
Quirk responded to Siegfried’s post and said that it was her belief, as well as her extended family’s belief, that if keeping the Quirk name on the building is harmful to students, staff or anyone affiliated with EMU, it should not remain there.
Even though it hurts to know her last name has some history regarding racism, Quirk said her pain is nothing compared to the harm inflicted on people of color by white people in this country.
“As a society we are long overdue in reckoning with the violence and hatred cast toward people of color — in particular Black men and women and children — and it is time that we take responsibility and own accountability for the actions of ourselves and our ancestors,” Quirk said.
After learning about Siegfried’s post, EMU began a comprehensive investigation to determine the university’s next steps, which now includes changing the name of the theater. Quirk said she is proud that EMU has taken a stand and hopes this is not the last process the university takes to become an institution of forward thinking, equity and inclusion for all students and staff.
Suggestions for the new name of the building can be submitted here until 5 p.m. Nov. 18. The suggestions will be reviewed by the committee and will make recommendations to Smith’s office.
Siegfried did not wish to comment for this story.
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