Barry Saunders

Don’t whitewash history – learn from it

On June 1, 2015, the large cut lettering for the original Saunders Hall still remained over the front entrance archway, but the building has been renamed Carolina Hall.
On June 1, 2015, the large cut lettering for the original Saunders Hall still remained over the front entrance archway, but the building has been renamed Carolina Hall. hlynch@newsobserver.com

So, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill succumbed and changed the name of Saunders Hall to the uninspired Carolina Hall.

Dang. I was hoping they’d keep the original name, and not just because – actually, not at all because – one of William Laurence Saunders’ relatives may have owned my great grandfather at some point, and certainly not because I wanted the building renamed in honor of me.

Sure, there was a rumor – started by me – that UNC was considering naming it in honor of me to save the money it will take to re-chisel a new name. Modesty, plus the inconvenient facts that I didn’t attend UNC and have done little worth honoring, made me a long shot, though.

Because there were no William Saunders descendants to lobby on his behalf against the change – his wife, Florida Cotten Saunders and he had one daughter, who was stillborn – that left just me to lobby against the change: not, you understand, on behalf of Saunders, but on behalf of history and our ability to understand it.

Hampering our ability

Whitewashing – okay, unchiseling – the names of notorious figures from buildings doesn’t change who they were or even change the history. It does, though, hamper our ability to be vigilant in ensuring that such people and their ideas no longer gain a toehold in our state.

Start erasing the names of everyone who has attained a degree of infamy, and pretty soon not only will we be stuck with a whole bunch of generically named buildings, but we’ll also be stuck with generations of historically ignorant citizens.

Because of the uproar surrounding the move to remove Saunders’ name, it’s conceivable that every UNC student now knows who he was – the loathsome, rheumatic leader of a terrorist organization whose aim was to overthrow the U.S. government in the South. Years hence, when the name “Saunders” is no longer being reviled by protesting students, incoming freshmen will have no idea that the dude ever existed.

That would be sinful.

Amped up agony

Speaking of sin, as Saunders and his contemporary Confederate kindred spirits – Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, heretofore known as unKool & the Gang – try to dodge the devil’s pitchforks in hell, it’s unlikely that the efforts to unchisel their names from buildings is causing them much consternation.

If, however, they could pry themselves off the prongs of Mephistopheles’ meat hooks long enough to take note of what’s happening above ground, the thing that would amp up their agony more than anything else would be knowing that the descendants of slaves are receiving world-class educations in buildings bearing their name. Every black student who gets educated at UNC is giving a salute to Saunders – a one-finger salute, but a salute nonetheless.

Saunders, Earl Ijames pointed out, “was a complex person. On the one hand, he was a Grand Dragon for the Klan, but on the other he was a rather extraordinary historian” who helped preserve irreplaceable colonial documents. He also served as Secretary of State and as an editor of the newspaper that eventually became the N&O.

Ijames, a curator at the N.C. Museum of History, said that instead of seeing buildings’ names changed, he’d prefer seeing schools “place a higher emphasis on history education... Whether you’re black, white, Indian or Asian, people like William Saunders help you understand the whole spectrum of who we are and how we got here after 400 years... It’s a blueprint for how we got here.”

Halleluyer.

Every first-year college student has quoted or misquoted Santayana’s warning – those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – but in this instance, it’s the stoned-cold truth.

“History,” Ijames said, “is kind of like that onion. You peel it off and it makes you cry, but you’ve got to peel it to get to the core.” Concerning the move to rename the building after Zora Neale Hurston, a black woman who was a writer and who studied at UNC, Ijames asked “What’s going to happen in 100 years if the politically correct wind comes around and changes again?”

Why, there’ll be another uproar and we’ll be going through this again.

The main problem with obliterating unpleasant history, besides having to keep rechiseling new names, is that it may cause generations hence to wonder, “What was all the fuss about?”

Only by leaving buildings, memorials and statues, even those that honor people with shady pasts – and educating people about them – can we ensure that they’ll know what all the fuss was about.

Earning a B.A., an M.A. or a Ph.D. – especially in a building named after the former chief organizer for the KKK – seems the sublimest revenge.

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

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