UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Hall has a new exhibit that tells some painful truths about the university’s history and the building’s namesake, a purported Ku Klux Klan leader in the 19th century.
University trustees voted last year to strip the name “Saunders” from the building, which a century ago was named for William Saunders, an alumnus and former trustee who was called the leader of the Klan in North Carolina. The board’s action had followed months of protests, study and debate about renaming an academic building at the heart of campus.
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The university also pledged to place a marker at the site and educate people about the university’s history. A history task force was named and work began on the Saunders exhibit as well as a wide-ranging effort to bring context to other historic places on campus.
On Wednesday, trustees toured the installation, which covers a wall in the foyer of the building. It examines Saunders’ life, racial turmoil during and after Reconstruction and the contemporary student movement that led to the renaming.
In an email, Chancellor Carol Folt urged students to visit the building. “It is a great starting point as we tell the full story of Carolina’s history,” she wrote.
The exhibit includes a photograph of Saunders, who was secretary of state in North Carolina from 1879 to 1891 and a collector of Colonial-era records. He also was an editor at the Raleigh Observer newspaper, which would eventually become The News & Observer.
The display explains why today’s trustees withdrew the honor bestowed upon Saunders by the 1922 Board of Trustees, calling it “a grave mistake in celebrating Saunders as the head of a ‘violent terrorist organization.’”
At midday Wednesday, a group of archivists from the university’s library took in the exhibit and chatted among themselves about whether the presentation was enough. Students breezed by on their way to class.
The conclusions seemed a little too neat for Asia Harman, one of the archivists, suggesting that it conveyed the message that “we fixed it, we’re all better.”
“That’s not the case,” Harman said, adding, “I guess it’s a step in the right direction – better than not doing anything.”
Student Agnes Ezekwesili from Nigeria said she doubts many students will be interested. She plans to visit, she said. “I’m happy they renamed it, but not super happy about what they renamed it,” she said. “There’s varied emotion about the hall in general.”
Some students wanted to see the building named Hurston Hall to honor African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who had ties to UNC. Homemade signs saying “Hurston Hall” had been posted on the building’s windows last year.
Marisa Sclafani, a student from Chicago, said she doesn’t know much about Southern history, but she wants to learn more. Sclafani remembers discussing the issue in class last year. “It’s something I definitely would like to look more into,” she said.
Trustee Chuck Duckett, who was involved early in the renaming discussions, said he recently had a 45-minute conversation with Yale University faculty, who wanted to learn from UNC’s experience. Yale has been the subject of controversy over its Calhoun College, named for former Vice President John Calhoun, an advocate of slave-holding and states’ rights.
Duckett said he’s proud of the work done at UNC to shed light on its past. The exhibit, he said, is not an opinion piece. “It’s just the facts,” he said.
“There’s a lot of history here,” he said Wednesday. “It’s important to make it accessible.”