My first reaction to the renaming of Saunders Hall was that if the UNC trustees care so little about the building where I first began the serious study of history, I would burn my diploma – if I could find it – in Polk Place. That was a bluff, of course, since the document vanished long ago.
But let the threat pass for the act, which registers my dismay that UNC has joined the parade led by Duke and East Carolina in expunging unfashionable names and associations from college buildings. Col. William Saunders, who is now, it seems, a virtual nonperson, is alleged on slender evidence to have been a leader of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction when an earlier UNC Board of Trustees named the building in 1913.
The forces of historical correction dismiss, as if irrelevant, the context in which an earlier generation might have considered a Klan connection not only unobjectionable but praiseworthy. Few societies, from the South of 1871 to the Nazified France of 1940-44, have submitted quietly to military occupation, and the French Resistance (and some Confederate veterans) fought it by violent means. Was the scholarly Colonel Saunders among them? He denied it, and I for one doubt it.
There are, however, less provocative guides to the climate of opinion in 1913 and its complacency about racial attitudes now abhorrent. There was, among other signs of the times, the boffo popularity of a silent film epic called “Birth of a Nation.” D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie was based on a novel called “The Klansman,” and it glorified the Klan night-riders as liberators. Admiring audiences applauded a film (otherwise noted for cinematic inventiveness) that seems ludicrously misguided now. It was perhaps no coincidence that the neighboring year 1913 saw the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, whose racial attitudes seem retrograde and who countenanced Jim Crow practices in the nation’s capital. And those familiar with C. Vann Woodward’s book, “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” will recall that other bigotries – including the so-called “Oriental Exclusion Acts” – were prevalent then.
Is this to argue that we are stopped from deploring
the racism of that era? Of course not. It does mean that we are obliged to understand it and to acknowledge the persistent thread of racism in American history, even now. Moral modesty is always preferable when we judge the past. And history, grasped in the round, is the only reliable tool for measuring differences between Now and Then.
As I reflect on the revolution in racial sensitivity that prompts the misguided name-changing cult, I think back to a Chapel Hill mentor of the 1950s, William H. Poteat, brilliant scion of a distinguished academic family and influential teacher. His courses were labeled “philosophy” but were also courses in Poteat and his prescient wisdom.
I recall an exchange of letters years after I sat at his feet in Caldwell Hall
about the warped reinterpretation of Herman Melville’s novella “Billy Budd,” the tale of a British sailor boy who impulsively strikes and kills a bullying superior and hangs for it. The occasion was less important than Bill Poteat’s prophetic remark that “everyone is a gnostic these days,” meaning that modern readers take too little account of the wartime context of the tale and its complexities. They tend to view Billy Budd’s captain and reluctant executioner as a tyrant. (Not Billy himself, whose last words are, “God bless Captain Vere!” and certainly not the author.)
The gnostics were a Christian sect influenced by Persian fire-worshippers, who divided the world between flesh and spirit and humanity between angels and devils. This dualism was properly condemned by the church: Christian orthodoxy insists that humans are of mixed nature, with an intrinsic capacity for both good and evil. In invoking the example of gnosticism, Poteat was deploring the modern tendency to divide players of the past between angels and devils.
So far, the most eminent victims of historical double-think hereabouts are Saunders and Gov. Charles B. Aycock, once celebrated as North Carolina’s “education governor” who sponsored the building of hundreds of schools, men of their time who rendered important public services. The name-changing cult is led by students and faculty nonhistorians who know just enough history to feel morally superior to the past and its errant players.
But the eternal precondition of historical understanding is that we ourselves cannot escape the moods, trends and fashions of our time and consequently are well-advised to view the shortcomings of past generations with forbearance. The moralists of the future will be examining our own flawed present.
Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.