What's In a Name? The Forgotten Legacy of DuPont Hall

What's In a Name? The Forgotten Legacy of DuPont Hall

by Hayden Daniel '19

On October 6, 2016, the Board of Trustees of Washington and Lee University announced that the new Center for Global Learning would bear the new name “The Kenneth P. Ruscio Center for Global Learning,” after President Ken Ruscio, who retired on December 31, 2016. Though President Ruscio has faced his share of controversy during his decade-long tenure as president of W&L, this article presents neither a condemnation nor an affirmation of his record as president. However, this article is focused on the surprising lack of controversy surrounding the replacement of the original name of the hall and the apparently forgotten legacy of its original namesake, Jessie Ball DuPont.  

            Jessie Dew Ball was born on January 20, 1884 in Hardings, Virginia, the daughter of a Confederate veteran and attorney as well as a distant relative to George Washington’s mother Mary Ball Washington. She graduated from what is today named Longwood University in 1902 and began teaching in Lancaster County, Virginia. While teaching elementary school in Virginia and later in San Diego, Ball amassed a personal fortune in lucrative stock trades and real estate deals, profits from which she used to fund need-based scholarships.

Ball had met Alfred I. DuPont, a scion of the eminent DuPont family, in 1898 when she was fourteen and he was thirty-four. They stayed in correspondence over twenty years until, after he was wracked by bankruptcy and the death of his second wife, he began to court her while she was assistant principal of a school in San Diego. They were married in January 1921 and settled on one of the DuPont family’s vast estates in Wilmington, Delaware where Ball DuPont oversaw the estate and began to assist her husband in managing his business interests. The family relocated to Jacksonville, Florida in 1927 and began to expand their real estate and business interests across the state. In 1935, Ball DuPont became director of the Florida National Bank and began her first major philanthropic venture, the restoration of Stratford Hall Plantation, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee and the ancestral home of the Lee family. Later that year, tragedy struck when Alfred died at the age of seventy.

            Jessie Ball DuPont was left as the main beneficiary of Alfred’s will, and served as the president of the two philanthropic organizations set up by the trust, the Nemours Foundation and the Alfred I. DuPont Testamentary Trust, while also managing her husband’s remaining business interests. It was after her husband’s death when Ball DuPont began a period of additional philanthropic activity. She began to give generously to religious organizations, medical institutions, and universities, Washington and Lee prominently in particular. In 1947, in gratitude for her generosity to the university, Washington and Lee granted her an honorary doctorate of humane letters, making Ball DuPont the first woman to receive a degree of any kind from W&L. After receiving further gifts from Ball DuPont in order towards erecting a new building to house the Music and Art departments, Washington and Lee named the building DuPont Hall in her honor. Ball DuPont also aided W&L in achieving another milestone, becoming its first female member of the Board of Trustees in 1960.

            Ball DuPont served on the Board of Trustees until her death in 1970. She left the vast majority of her $42 million estate, one of the largest in the history of Florida, to the creation of the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund. The Fund provides donations to 325 organizations, including Washington and Lee University, that Ball DuPont had donated to and had designated as reputable institutions between 1960 to 1964. The Fund continues to support Washington and Lee, its most recent donation being $13,500 in 2015.

            So, why would Washington and Lee University choose to replace the name of such an important and generous benefactor with such close ties to the university and its history, especially given the current climate on university campuses across the nation that practically requires the institution to highlight the achievements of women and minorities? Certainly, Jessie Ball DuPont is worthy of recognition as the first woman to receive a degree from W&L and the first woman to sit on the Board of Trustees, as well as being a relative of George Washington and a supporter of the preservation of Robert E. Lee’s legacy. The answer may lie in the fact the both Jessie Ball DuPont and the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund have supported organizations that the university has tried to distance itself from in recent years, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans. On the other hand, President Ruscio gained both praise and ire for his rather isolationist policies toward the university’s Confederate past. If true, this action would provide yet another example of a university devaluing a prominent figure of its past to appease political correctness.

Also, the lack of controversy surrounding the renaming of the building deserves to be noted. Throughout the entire building of the Global Learning Center and after it was renamed after President Ruscio, not a word of protest was heard from any of the women’s groups on campus. The sound of silence over the renaming of the building bearing the name of such an important woman in the university’s history has been deafening. If the Board of Trustees had renamed the John Chavis Boardroom, student organizations across campus would be up in arms - but when the name of the first woman to receive a degree from W&L is removed, not a word of protest is uttered. To be fair, perhaps this is a simple case of ignorance. Perhaps this renaming was just a token of generosity in gratitude for the years of loyal service that President Ruscio provided without any tinge of political intent, and perhaps there were no protests over the renaming simply because the groups on campus that usually take it upon themselves to protest such things were unaware of the rich history of DuPont Hall and the impressive achievements of its namesake. If this is the case, that the rich legacy of Jessie Ball DuPont has been swept up in the dustbin of history, then perhaps that is the most tragic circumstance of all.

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