Behind New Hall’s new name: Fanny Ruth Patterson Complex


Northern Star File Photo

Fanny Ruth Patterson (left), NIU’s first African American graduate, to be commemorated with the Fanny Ruth Patterson Complex (right).

DeKALB – On Oct. 7, the NIU community will hold a ceremony in honor of New Hall being renamed the Fanny Ruth Patterson Complex, which will contain Patterson Hall East and Patterson Hall West.

The change is being made to honor Fanny Ruth Patterson, the first African American to graduate from NIU. Patterson completed her two-year degree at NIU’s predecessor, Northern Illinois State Normal School, in 1915. She became a teacher and taught in Cairo, Illinois, for at least four years. She later died from tuberculosis in her hometown of Hinkley, Illinois, at the age of 28.

John W. Cook, the president of Northern Illinois State Normal School at the time of Patterson’s graduation, wrote her a raving recommendation letter. 

“She is a most excellent and interesting young woman and she has had the entire confidence of everybody with whom she has worked,” Cook said.

The decision to rename New Hall was originally proposed by NIU Housing and Residential Services and was approved unanimously by the Board of Trustees on June 16.

NIU’s Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden sees Patterson as a perfect example of what NIU students should strive to be.

“I think she represents courage and persistence,” Walden said. “She was the first African American to graduate from NIU. Given the time she went to school and where we were as a country, I think it was really courageous and significant. It showed her strength, her tenacity, her desire to learn, change lives and to see education as a tool for advancement and liberation.”

According to Walden, students at NIU are thrilled and are anticipating the name change.

“I’ve talked to some students about it and they are really excited,” Walden said. “I think it’s an opportunity to educate our students about who she (Patterson) was as well. For those students who don’t know, it’s an opportunity for them to get to know a little bit more about NIU history.”

Alexander Larson, a first-year pursuing a major in chemistry, has some worries regarding renaming New Hall.

“It’s good for it (New Hall), all of the other ones are named. Stevenson, Grant and so on, you don’t want New Hall to just be New Hall forever,” Larson said. “But it’s gonna take time … It’s definitely a good thing to be honoring her, but when you change something’s name, it takes a long time for people to stop calling it by its original name.”

While it may take time for students to get used to the change and figure out what sorts of nicknames to call the complex, the renaming has been endorsed by students, faculty and board members alike. 

“The Residence Hall Association, the students, voted to rename New Hall,” Walden said. “They put the recommendation forth and gave the specific recommendation that it should be named after Fanny Ruth Patterson. I think it does represent who we are as an institution. We have many students who go to NIU who are firsts, first to go to college in their family, and she represents the first of the first.”