At UNC, equivocating on Saunders, other oppressors

Saunders Hall, completed in 1922, is named for UNC-Chapel Hill class of 1854 graduate William Lawrence Saunders.
Saunders Hall, completed in 1922, is named for UNC-Chapel Hill class of 1854 graduate William Lawrence Saunders. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees announced last week that important words would be removed from – and added to – the building that has borne the name of KKK organizer William Saunders since its dedication in 1920. Most of the public attention has gone to the single word that is being removed: the name “Saunders.” But more attention is due the words that are being added, because they suggest an enduring discomfort with naming the evil in the university’s past.

The Board of Trustees decreed that the new “Carolina” Hall must feature a historical marker that “explains Mr. Saunders’ contributions to UNC and the State of North Carolina,” the circumstances that led an earlier Board of Trustees to name the building for him and the reason why the current board has chosen to remove his name.

What is noteworthy is the decision to perpetuate the celebration of William Saunders. His name comes down, but an explanation of his contributions to the university and the state goes up. Why does Saunders, gone for almost 125 years, continue to command this honor, an honor bestowed on the KKK leader by his grandchildren’s generation at a time when many were celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and enforcing Jim Crow? Why are we obliged, almost a century later, to perpetuate that generation’s decision to single him out for honor from among all Carolina alumni who had made contributions to the university and the state? Why must we still publicly venerate his “contributions” on the walls of a university building?

The trustees also required the university to adorn the renamed building with a plaque that reads as follows: “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At first glance, the statement is pleasing in its timeless generality. But therein lies the problem. The society that Saunders lived in, and the society of two generations later that honored him with the naming, did not practice oppression as a generality. Whites oppressed blacks in the service of white supremacy. Why can this not be said? Indeed, why remember generic “injustices” when what we are actually remembering is “racial persecution”?

The statement even lets the oppressors subtly off the hook. It refers to them as people who “would” deny others their rights. The conditional word “would” strips their persecution of its terrible effectiveness. The truth is not that white supremacy merely aimed to deny blacks their rights – and at times their lives. The truth is that white supremacy actually did those things. Why the equivocating use of the conditional verb?

In a separate resolution, the Board of Trustees directed the chancellor to take various broad steps in the coming years “to ensure that students, prospective students, faculty, staff and anyone with an interest in the university have the opportunity to learn about Carolina’s history.”

If the words going up on the now-renamed Saunders Hall are any indication, we still have a ways to go in confronting the uglier parts of that history.

Eric L. Muller is the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.