Colonel Saunders, UNC and Southern Reconstruction revisited

William Saunders
William Saunders North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives

The painting of “Uncle Bill” was part of my childhood. The Confederate sword of Colonel Saunders is on the wall in my living room. Saunders Hall at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has carried our family name since 1920 to honor his contribution to UNC as a trustee of the university and as a scholar. William Lawrence Saunders compiled the definitive Colonial document collection and history of early North Carolina. His 10-volume “Colonial Records of North Carolina” is still in print and available at amazon.com.

Saunders, my great-great uncle, was a lawyer as am I. In 1876, he was one of the founders of The News & Observer. He remained associated with the paper until 1879 when he became the Secretary of State. He was continuously re-elected to that office until his death in 1891. He also was the Emperor of the Invisible Empire known as the Ku Klux Klan. He was arrested by federal troops and taken to Washington, D.C., to be questioned by the Congressional Committee of 1877. To each of over 100 questions, he asserted his Fifth Amendment right and stated: “I decline to answer.” That phrase is inscribed on his tombstone at Calvary Churchyard in Tarboro, along with the statement: “For twenty years he exerted more power in North Carolina than any other man.”

Saunders is believed to be the first man to plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions before a congressional committee.

History lessons in my elementary school depicted Reconstruction as a time of corrupt carpetbaggers from the North and scalawags enriching themselves at the expense of respectable Southerners. The history I was taught never included the underground violent resistance to reunification of the North and South. Members of the KKK might have been considered Southern freedom fighters by some, but they were acting in violation of U.S. law. The KKK used violence to subvert the federal laws and the U.S. constitutional rights of black citizens. This murderous reign of terror existed in the South for 100 years thereafter.

This resistance to reunification was organized by the KKK and in North Carolina led by Saunders. The KKK and the Southern resistance succeeded in defeating Reconstruction, and Saunders was one of the architects of that “victory.”

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the Northern states lost interest in justice for Southern blacks and were complicit in allowing “Jim Crow” segregation for a century. Segregation is a euphemism for complete social injustice, terror and murder. “Separate but equal” was a legal fraud that allowed the North to ignore the murders and complete lack of legal rights for Southern black citizens.

President Andrew Johnson, who took office after Lincoln was assassinated, was a racist and actively opposed social justice for blacks in the South. The Northern states allowed Southern states to prevent blacks from owning land or voting, forcing them to sharecrop and continue to live practically as slaves.

The Southern resentment of the U.S. government troops that occupied the South for the 12 years of Reconstruction runs deep. One hundred years later, when federal troops returned to the South to Little Rock to integrate the schools and to the University of Mississippi to escort James Meredith to class, there was “Déjà vu” in the South. The reintroduction of federal troops into the South for school integration, combined with President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act, transformed Southern politicians from Democrats to become Republicans with a particular hostility to the federal government. This federal intervention into the South – 100 years after Reconstruction – was the beginning of the end of the KKK’s rampage. But the end is still in the future.

Col. William Lawrence Saunders was the son of my namesake, Rev. Joseph H. Saunders (UNC-1821), an Episcopal minister assigned as a missionary from North Carolina to Pensacola, Fla. Rev. Saunders died in Pensacola of yellow fever in 1839 when William was 4 years old. The Reverend is buried under the vestry room at Christ Church in Pensacola.

Col. Saunders graduated from UNC in 1854 and received his LL.B law degree in 1858. In 1861 he volunteered in the Rowan Rifle Guards and was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to Reilly’s Battery in Virginia. In 1864 he was elected colonel of the Forty-sixth North Carolina Regiment. He was wounded several times in the Civil War. My great-great grandfather and Col. Saunders’ brother was Major Joseph H. Saunders (UNC-1860) who was in the charge at Gettysburg with Pinder’s Division.

The debate over the name of Saunders Hall at the University of North Carolina has persisted for decades. It is time to change the name of the building. I support the students who pressed this debate, and I commend trustees for acting.

One of the reasons the UNC trustees named the building after Saunders in 1920 was his leadership in the KKK. There is no doubt about that. So it’s important to recognize the trustees of the university as well as the vast majority of lawyers and judges at that time supported the defeat of Reconstruction and the denial of rights to black citizens. These are the very individuals who should have supported “justice for all” under the United States Constitution and failed to do so.

Saunders did represent the legal and political system in the South, but taking his name off the building should not lead anyone to believe the vestiges of the system he helped design do not persist today. Current political measures to restrict minority voting rights are an example of that continuing struggle for social justice.

There is still much work to be done to achieve true social justice. This is a small step in the right direction.

Joseph H. Saunders is a lawyer in St. Petersburg, Fla.