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DU Law Professor Tom Russell Battles Klan Ghosts In Texas

Tom Russell


DENVER — What do Nelson Mandela, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and University of Denver Sturm College of Law Professor Tom Russell have in common?

All were recently highlighted in a list of CNN’s “intriguing people.” Russell earned the designation for starting a dialogue on race, history and the law at the University of Texas School of Law that culminated this month in the renaming of a dormitory there that had been named after a particularly vicious member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Russell was teaching law at the University of Texas in the 1990s when he first learned the ugly history of William Stewart Simkins, a law professor there in the early 20th Century who had been a Klan leader following the Civil War. Not only was a law school dorm named in his honor, there was also a bronze bust of Simkins in the law library which students rubbed for good luck.

Those in charge of naming the dorm in 1954, just weeks after Brown v. Board of Education, were likely well-aware of Simkins’ Klan involvement, Russell said, but consciousness of the history has faded over time. Russell approached school officials more than a decade ago about changing the dorm’s name, but the effort stalled. Some people argued that in the old days, everyone was racist.

“One of the mistakes people make is that they say there are plenty of other racist people besides Simkins that have buildings named after them,” Russell said. “I’m not focused on the fact that he had racist views. I’m focused on the fact that he was a criminal and a terrorist, a gun-toting, mask-wearing, night-riding Klansman who headed a group in Florida that murdered 25 people in three years in just one county.”

Russell published a historical paper this spring about issues of race at the University of Texas, including a section on Simkins. An Austin TV news station got a copy of the paper and did a segment about the dorm honoring Simkins. Soon the story was front-page news in Austin and made its way around the internet, with thousands calling for the school to rename the dorm. The school took heed of the uproar, and two weeks ago changed the name of the dorm from Simkins to Creekside.

With this victory under his belt, will Russell set his sights on anything more local — say, for instance, the neighborhood named after Benjamin Stapleton, the former Denver mayor who had links to the Klan?

“Simply because people are going to ask me that question, I want to see for myself the primary evidence involving Stapleton and what he did with the Klan,” he said. “Whether I’m going to write about it or do more, I haven’t decided.”