‘Admired everywhere’: Petition circulates to name Evans Hall replacement after David Blackwell

Photo of Evans Hall
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
The building many hope will be named after David Blackwell will be replacing Evans Hall, which was named for Griffith Evans, who refused to hire Blackwell on account of his race.

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A petition originally created in November 2021 to rename the Evans Hall replacement building after David Blackwell is circulating among Blackwell’s former students, peers and admirers.

The author of the petition and former campus statistics professor Robert Pisani said he wanted the petition to recognize Blackwell’s expertise in mathematics, as well as acknowledge the struggles Blackwell faced as a Black man in academia. Pisani added campus professors of statistics Michael Orkin, Philip Stark and campus senior statistics lecturer emeritus Roger Purves assisted with the petition as it was developed.

“It should be known that (Blackwell) would stand out in any crowd of mathematicians,” Pisani said in an email. “Evans Hall housed some of the best mathematicians in the world, and he stood out there.”

Pisani noted that Evans Hall was named for Griffith Evans, longtime chair of the campus mathematics department, who refused to hire Blackwell on account of his race. Blackwell later accepted a position on campus first as a visiting professor from Howard University, then as a statistics professor, and eventually rose to become head of the department.

Multiple former students and colleagues of Blackwell have supported the initiative, Pisani said. In the coming weeks, Pisani hopes to get students involved in the petitioning process and encourage people to sign his online petition on Change.org.

“He was a wonderful human being, scientist, educator, and colleague,” Stark said of Blackwell in a comment on the petition. “When the Department of Statistics moves out of the structure named for the powerful person who had denied Prof. Blackwell a position at Berkeley because he is Black, it would be (overdue) poetic justice to move into a structure named David Blackwell Hall.”

When asked about the petition, campus Capital Strategies spokesperson Kyle Gibson said classrooms in Evans Hall will be relocated into multiple new and already-existing campus buildings.

On the former site of Tolman Hall, a building called the “Gateway” is planned to be constructed; another building, the Academic Replacement Building, is planned to be constructed on the Dwinelle parking lot site.

“The campus has not yet proposed a project for the site of Evans Hall, following its eventual demolition in the coming years,” Gibson said in an email. “As the project moves forward, a permanent name that celebrates the best of what Berkeley is and aspires to be will be selected in consultation with our campus community and supporters.”

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said proposals submitted according to online campus guidelines of “Principles for Naming” will be considered when naming buildings. 

Pisani mentioned Blackwell’s unique qualities, especially his lack of pretension in academia, were chief reasons to consider naming a new building after him. Pisani called Blackwell “gracious” despite his mathematical talent, noting his willingness to use his intellect to assist and engage his students and others.

Hopefully, he said, the building could inspire future students to pursue Blackwell’s spirit in their own studies.

“The real good that can come from naming a building after David Blackwell is that there might be a talented young Black mathematician or chemist just starting out who needs that kind of model,” Pisani said. “Letting people know who he was can do that. It can improve the world.”

Contact Sebastian Cahill at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @SebastianCahil1.