Commentary

Saunders: Name that disputed UNC-CH building after me – not that other Saunders

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 26, 2014 

Of all the problems UNC-Chapel Hill is dealing with – no-show classes, Gov. Pat McCrory, Duke basketball signing even more high school All-Americans – this is one that could’ve been avoided.

How?

By listening to me. A decade and a half ago, when students first demanded that the name of Saunders Hall on UNC’s campus be changed because William L. Saunders was possibly an evil emperor of the Ku Klux Klan, I humbly suggested they name the building after – yup, you guessed it – me. Not out of any desire for self-aggrandizement or glory, oh no, but for strictly pecuniary reasons. That would save them the cost of chiseling and changing the name on the building and stationery.

The pros: Save money for the university – and with McCrory declaring war on higher education, it’s going to need to watch its pennies. Also, the university will gain the inside track on obtaining my Z.Z. Hill album and Players magazine collections when I croak. Most obviously in my favor, though, is that I’ve never murdered anybody or been emperor of anything.

The cons: No connection whatsoever to the university, unless you count the time I ran away from home at 15 in a vain attempt to meet Dean Smith and spent three days wandering Franklin Street.

Keep Sam

There has also long been an effort to remove Silent Sam, the statue commemorating Confederate Civil War soldiers, from the campus. Regardless of how one feels concerning Saunders, the effort to topple or mothball Silent Sam is just misguided and wrong. The war was fought and the Confederates lost – whew! – but that remains as much a part of this state’s and this country’s history as Paul Revere’s midnight ride, Betsy Ross’ flag and Thomas Jefferson’s love children.

Removing the statue is not going to unspill the blood that was needed, as abolitionist John Brown said, to purge this land of slavery. Besides that, why should survivors of Confederate soldiers be denied a monument to their dearly defeated departed – the key word being “defeated”?

Santayana has often been misquoted and greatly over-quoted by anyone who has ever taken a freshman philosophy class, but this is one instance when the writer’s most famous quote is apropos: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If we remove every vestige of our inconvenient past, how are we going to remember what we have been through and what we’ve overcome – and what we must guard against?

Earl Ijames, curator at the N.C. Museum of History, said removing those vestiges would be “the worst thing you could do. It’s incumbent upon us to leave history intact and know the whole story.”

Much of that story, Ijames said, would be unknown were it not for Col. William Saunders who, as Secretary of State, “spearheaded the Colonial Records in North Carolina. That’s an invaluable tool that allows us to go back to the early 1700s” for information on life in colonial North Carolina.

The best response

In a story last week, Taylor Webber-Fields, one of the students demanding the name change, grandiloquently stated her opposition to having a building named after a grand dragon. Webber-Fields, who is African-American, choked up when talking about how she has been affected by having a KKK leader memorialized at her dream school.

“The sturdy branches that flower the quad are no longer a shady resting spot for me to read a book or contemplate the complexities of life,” she said. “Instead, if I walk by, I cannot but imagine the bodies of my ancestors that could have hung so freely from those trees.”

Beautiful, Dickinsonian, even, and I feel your pain, sister woman. The best way to excise people like Saunders – William L. – from history, though, is not by chiseling their names from buildings on a university campus. The best way to render him a nonperson – or better yet, a positive force – is for you to go into that building and get as much education as you can. And take your brothers and sisters with you.

If it makes you feel better, y’all can flip his name the bird every time you enter.

Think about it. What would make Saunders feel worse: removing his name from a building or him knowing that the great-great-grandchildren of the people he used to hate are sitting inside that building partaking of a world-class education?

Of course, you understand that I’m speaking as an old man. Were I a 19-year-old college revolutionary, I’d be right there behind Taylor Webber-Fields, hiding my hammer and chisel in my coat – ready to remove “Saunders” from the building or add “Barry”.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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