Too bad the Board of Trustees of UNC has decided to rename Chapel Hill’s Saunders Hall “Carolina Hall.” It might have renamed it “Zora Neale Hurston Hall,” as some UNC students and faculty suggested.
Alas, the Board of Trustees isn’t partisan enough to honor Hurston. She was a well-known black novelist of the 1930s through ’50s, but she was also Republican – and a North-Carolina style Republican at that. In the Dec. 8, 1951, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, she wrote about her conservative Republicanism, a creed then symbolized by Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.
Hurston praised Taft because he “was not pro-Negro, and not pro-white.” That she explained, was “because he was not trying to win our votes so much as he was trying to do what is right.” And she praised him because he was “not pro-labor and not pro-management.” The proof that Taft was not pro-management was his Taft-Hartley Act of 1948, which allowed states like North Carolina to pass right-to-work laws that hampered union organizing.
Not only was Hurston a Republican, but she was a George, or George W., or Jeb Bush Republican. She praised Taft because “he has been bred to physical comfort, good manners, and public responsibility.” Taft’s dogs and cats, she noted, were descended from pets owned by Founding Fathers.
This was not a matter of snobbery with Hurston. She explained, “This being used to things is always serviceable to white people dealing with Negroes.” Translation for UNC Board members: Rich white businessmen descended from rich white businessmen treat black people better than other whites do. That sentiment should have appealed to the much-maligned board.
Hurston had the North Carolina Republican view of welfare. She complained that the Democrats had introduced welfare because of popular protest. The answer to popular protest, like the recent “Moral Mondays,” was to reduce welfare and show that protesters could not intimidate the government.
Hurston had the North Carolina Republican view of “liberals,” “that slippery word…of devious and unstable connotation.” Liberals “make intense appeals to racial antagonism,” and besides, some of them are not liberals, but “pinkos and other degrees of fellow travelers.”
By naming Saunders Hall after Hurston, the board would have recognized that this black writer was, politically speaking, one of their own. The faculty and students who wanted to honor Hurston had inadvertently given them an opening. Were they too high-minded to take it, or just uninformed? They preferred a public-relations gimmick. When UNC faces its next crisis, what will the leadership do? Will Chancellor Carol Folt rename herself Carolina Folt?
Fred S. Naiden is a professor in the Department of History at UNC-Chapel Hill.