Students and recent graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill are pressing university leaders to change the name of a campus building named for William Saunders, who is thought to have been a leader in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1800s.
Students and young alumni made their case Wednesday to a committee of the Board of Trustees. They have gathered more than 800 signatures on a petition for their campaign, dubbed #KickOutTheKKK.
“This legacy of radical terrorism has no place on our campus, or in our community, as a credible stance,” said student Taylor Webber-Fields. “We are an institution of integrity, diversity, inclusion and prestige, none of which can be used to describe the infamous Ku Klux Klan.”
The 1922 building is the home of the university’s geography and religious studies departments. It’s near Polk Place, a prominent green between South Building and Wilson Library at the center of campus.
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According to a university website that chronicles the history of campus buildings, Saunders was named for William Saunders, an 1854 university graduate, to honor his role in compiling historical documents.
A soldier who was wounded in the Civil War, Saunders later practiced law in Salisbury. But in 1869-70, he was also the chief organizer of the KKK in North Carolina and Chapel Hill, the site said.
Later in his life, Saunders was a university trustee and the secretary of state of North Carolina.
The students and alumni said university policy provides for renaming buildings when the namesake’s reputation changes substantially as to hurt the university’s image. They proposed working with the school’s development office to find a benefactor who could help rename the building.
Members of the committee said they wanted to look at the historical evidence of Saunders’ connection to the KKK.
This isn’t the first time students have called for the renaming of campus landmarks. The Silent Sam statue of a Confederate soldier has been the focus of tension in the past, with students calling for its removal.
Alston Gardner, chairman of the trustee board’s academic affairs committee, said the board can’t fight battles about every building tied to social norms of the mid-19th century. But he said the students and alumni had done their homework and they had begun to make a case.
“Whether we’ll change it or not, I don’t know,” Gardner said. “We’ll listen to what the historical evidence is.”
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.”