After years of recurring campus discussion – and months of intensified debate – the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees on Thursday is expected to decide the fate of a building name that for some is a marker of history and for others, a symbol of hate.
The board is expected to vote on the future of Saunders Hall, an academic building now named for William Saunders, a 19th-century UNC graduate, trustee and collector of colonial records. He also happened to be a member and organizer of the Ku Klux Klan, many historians believe.
A student group, the Real Silent Sam Coalition, has protested and pushed university leaders to rename the building for African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who studied for a time at UNC. Some also want to see historical context added to other campus monuments, including the Confederate soldier statue known as Silent Sam.
Who was William Saunders?
Saunders (1835-1891) was a colonel in the Confederate Army who later became North Carolina secretary of state and editor of an important compilation of the state’s Colonial-era records. He was a graduate of UNC. While no primary documents prove Saunders’ membership in the KKK, historians and the 1920 Board of Trustees declared that he was. In 1871, Saunders was questioned in Congress about whether he was head of the so-called Invisible Empire in North Carolina. He refused to answer, exercising the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. “I Decline to Answer” was written on his tombstone, according to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.
Some argue that it’s time to change the name of Saunders Hall, which houses the department of geography. The name is offensive and hurtful to African-Americans and others, they argue, and honors white supremacy. Others say erasing the name would be a whitewash of history, thus removing the opportunity for students to learn lessons about an unpleasant past. Stripping the name, they argue, is a slippery slope that would ultimately lead to calls for other buildings and landmarks to be renamed.
What is the KKK ?
The Klu Klux Klan has evolved over the years with different factions and splinter groups. In Saunders’ day, the KKK was a secretive organization formed to overthrow the Reconstruction-era Republican Party in the South and restore white supremacy, often with a violent terror campaign against blacks.
In February, East Carolina University decided to remove from a dormitory the name of former N.C. Gov. Charles B. Aycock, who espoused white supremacist views. The name will be preserved in another space on campus to be called “Heritage Hall.” Last year, Duke University removed the Aycock name from a building. Across the nation, universities have struggled over what to do with names tied to a racist past.
Trustees have turned to historians, professors, students, alumni and the public for input on renaming Saunders Hall. And they got plenty. Other suggested names emerged for the building: Stuart Scott, the late African-American sports broadcaster; Dean Smith, the late Tar Heels basketball coach who was active in civil rights; even Eve Carson, the UNC student body president who was murdered in Chapel Hill seven years ago. More than 700 comments were posted to a special website on the issue. The comments were released after a public records request, but student names were redacted.
Here’s a sampling:
▪ “I like the original name. It’s there for a reason. It’s part of our history, no matter how gruesome the history behind it is. ... If you leave the name alone, it reminds students about the horrible past and how we are now above that type of behavior.” – Darnell Tomlinson, alumnus
▪ “I think the university should rename Saunders Hall. Although I understand the argument about race relations being different in Saunders’ time, leading the KKK was outside the norm even then. I recognize his contributions within the history department and NC archives, but that doesn’t excuse his high-level involvement with a group associated with violent racism.” – A student
▪ “The campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a reflection of history of the state of North Carolina over the life of the University. It should continue to reflect that history, good and bad. To try to re-write that history based on the changed perspective of time is a dangerous precedent to set.” – Willie Gay, alumnus
▪ “Good grief! It’s a no-brainer. Rename it.” – Gaston Eubanks, alumnus
▪ “Leave the name alone. Saunders Hall was named for a man who lived in a different era. If you rename a building because a man who lived in the 19th century had views that are at variance with the morality, ethics and social justice of today, then you’d best be prepared to rename a lot of buildings on campus. History is what it is. Channel that righteous indignation into action for social justice and progressive ideas today.” – H. Truett Goodwin Jr., alumnus
▪ “It is difficult, often to decide what to do in cases where the actions of the individual lie so deeply buried in our nation’s history. ... I had classes in Saunders Hall. I had no idea at the time the taint associated with that name. So, I think it would be within the tradition of excellence that is the University of North Carolina to change this name and remove that shame.” – Sarah Gunn, alumna
▪ “I feel that Saunders Hall needs to be renamed Hurston Hall, Silent Sam needs to be contextualized, and freshmen need to have some type of orientation discussing race at UNC. Some people see Saunders Hall as just a building, but to me, it represents centuries of oppression and commitment to White supremacy. If UNC continues to call the hall Saunders after a decision is made, that will show me what the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill truly thinks about its Minority population, their feelings, their comfort, and their beliefs.” – A student
▪ “I support changing the name from Saunders to Hurston Hall. I don’t agree that this amounts to ‘sanitizing’ the past, especially if the old plaque is left intact, as has been proposed. Racism remains a serious issue on this campus, and it is important that UNC demonstrate its commitment to combating it, including in its memorial landscape.” – Dave Pier, faculty member
▪ “I commend the BOT for the thoughtful approach you are taking with this sensitive issue. As America’s first public university, UNC has a special responsibility and a unique opportunity to lead the nation in reconciling our own flawed history with its embedded elements of racism and white supremacy with our highest ideals of diversity and inclusion. I am convinced that the answer lies not in erasing history, but in teaching it and learning from it. Lux et Libertas.” – James Moeser, former chancellor and music professor
▪ “The name commemorates a violent terrorist and undermines the goal of our department and our university to be equally open to all students. Changing the name would send an important signal that we are indeed ‘the university of the people’ and are willing to wrestle with the unsavory aspects of UNC’s long history.” – Clark Gray, alumnus and geography professor
▪ “Change the name of Saunders Hall. It reflects an era and mindset that the University has left behind. This will give the university some ‘good press’ that it needs after recent embarrassing events.” – Stephen Melott, alumnus