Should UNC rechristen a building named after KKK leader?

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill debate is the latest in a string of requests from students and faculty across the country urging institutions to address their complicated histories around racial issues.

What’s in a name? To a group of student activists at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader on the academic building “Saunders Hall” is an offensive reminder of a painful legacy that has contributed to the racial stereotypes they confront on campus today.

Around the country, students of color have been pressuring university officials to change building names and remove monuments – or at least educate the campus better about what they see as symbols of white supremacy. Such efforts have cropped up periodically over the past several decades, but in the wake of high profile deaths of unarmed black men, such as in Ferguson, Mo., and the racist fraternity chant that was exposed at the University of Oklahoma, they may be gaining salience and broader support.

College leaders have come down on both sides of the debate over whether to rename buildings, but many have taken the opportunity to foster more open discussions about how their campus fits into the complicated national landscape of race.

“Universities cannot be afraid to look into their own racial histories,” says Thomas Russell, a law professor at the University of Denver who researched the University of Texas’ ties to a prominent Klansman. As the debate unfolds at UNC, he says, the campus “ought to be able to use this to become stronger.”

UNC Board of Trustees member Charles Duckett agrees. “I don’t want to run from the history, I want to run to it,” he says.

At a meeting this week, the most well attended Mr. Duckett has experienced, the board heard views from students, faculty, and others on Saunders Hall and other proposals such as offering educational tours of campus and adding context to the “Silent Sam” Confederate soldier monument.

The board set up an online site for the “Carolina community” to submit their views and specific proposals by April 25. This follows months of research by Duckett and other board members. To the activists, “it’s taking too long,” Duckett says, but “we’re looking for a comprehensive solution.” He hopes to be able to offer that solution at their next board meeting, in May.

The protests of the Real Silent Sam Coalition, one of the groups calling for the renaming, have included students showing up in front of Saunders Hall wearing nooses and holding signs saying, “This is what Saunders would do to me.” The current activism started in 2012. Another student group raised similar issues back in 1999, but their efforts didn’t lead to significant changes.

“Ultimately we’re still waiting to hear that the name will be removed, but overall the conversation is shifting” in a positive direction, says Tasia Harris, a UNC senior and a former leader of the UNC chapter of Students for Education Reform, one of the groups calling for change. At first, she says, there was little awareness or willingness to acknowledge “how violent these sites can be.... For a person of color, a building named after a grand dragon of the KKK is not just a building name. It seems like people are starting to understand that a little bit.”

Some people who support the overall idea of educating the UNC Chapel Hill community more about the racial history of the 221-year-old campus nevertheless prefer to keep the name on the building – precisely because they think that will do more to foster ongoing self-examination.

“If we rename it ... who William Saunders was will be forgotten. It will facilitate that sort of selective memory on this campus,” says Alfred Brophy, a UNC law professor who has written extensively about race and the law in American history. “We should probably stick with the name, put him into context, and have what I hope will be a years-long conversation about who this person was.”

He says he applauds the students for bringing Saunders to people’s attention, but the university needs to take the time to “get the story right and make sure we have an accurate picture” of Saunders and the other buildings and monuments on campus linked to racial oppression.

Not a lot of documentation has been found to help everyone agree on exactly what role Saunders played. He graduated from UNC in 1854 and served as a trustee from 1874 to 1891, according to UNC’s online museum.

In 1871, Saunders refused to answer the questions of a congressional committee investigating Klan activity. In minutes from a 1920 Board of Trustees meeting that Duckett found with the help of an archivist, it’s clear that the board counted leadership in the North Carolina KKK as one of his merits.

In 1922, the history department building was named after him. He had arranged for the publication of North Carolina’s colonial records when he served as North Carolina’s secretary of state.

The 1920 minutes are enough evidence for the activists.

“Parsing over those details when students tell you how they feel taking classes in these buildings and walking past these sites is really inconsiderate of your student body,” Ms. Harris says. She realizes the campus originally “wasn’t meant for black people or women when they first founded it. But I would hope [campus leaders] would try to reflect what it is now.”

Racist comments against the student activists, originated by anonymous users of an app called Yik Yak, which includes comments by people within a small geographical radius, “shows how much of what Saunders represents … is part of how people think today,” Harris says.

The activists have proposed that the building be renamed Hurston Hall, for African-American author Zora Neale Hurston, who briefly took classes on campus, unofficially, before UNC was integrated.

More than a dozen other campuses have seen similar debates.

Last month, East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., announced it would take the name of a former North Carolina governor who was known for promoting white supremacy off a residence hall and instead include information about him in a soon-to-be created Heritage Hall, a place for learning about individuals who have made contributions to the campus. 

At the same time, Clemson University in South Carolina decided not to rename Tillman Hall, named after one of its founders, Benjamin Ryan Tillman, also known for white supremacy politics. Comparing the campus to a building put together by “imperfect craftsmen,” Clemson’s board chairman David Wilkins said, “Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so,” the Greenville Journal reports.

As a historian and law professor at UT-Austin, Russell says he raised concerns in 2000 about a dorm there named after William Stewart Simkins. Simkins had been a law professor there in the early 1900s. Before that, he had fought in the Confederate army and, after the war, led Klan members who terrorized recently freed slaves, suppressing their vote and likely taking part in murder, Russell says. His research was not well received, and he ended up leaving the university that year.

Prior to Russell’s research, people routinely rubbed a brass bust of Simkins at the law library, he says. But it’s not just Simkins' story that bothered Russell. It was the fact that the university decided to name a building after him in the 1950s, just after the law school was forced to admit blacks in 1950 and the Supreme Court made its famous Brown v. Board of Ed decision to force school integration in 1954. At that time, his Klan connections were well known and part of why he was held up for honor, Russell says.

Russell published his research on Simkins in 2010, receiving national attention, and later that year the university renamed the building.

Russell doesn’t automatically support changing a building’s name in all cases, however. He says it’s important for those calling for a change to show that a person didn’t just have bad thoughts (which perhaps later in life were regretted or apologized for) but also took bad actions.

For campuses facing racial history issues, Russell says, “Brown University is the shining example ... the model for how a great university investigates its own past, critically, and comes out stronger.”

Brown, in Providence, R.I., began examining its historical ties to slavery in 2003 largely due to the initiative of then-President Ruth Simmons, the daughter of sharecroppers and the first African-American president at an Ivy League Institution.

In 2006, the committee produced its report, and its recommendations are still playing out on campus. Last year it opened its Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, for instance. And it unveiled a slavery memorial in a prominent spot on campus in the fall.

“We know a polite remembrance is not enough,” current president Christina Paxson said at the dedication. “We have an obligation, here at this citadel of free speech, to set a higher standard.... We must reject the forms of injustice that so freely circulated in 1764 [when Brown was founded], and which have not disappeared nearly as neatly as we would like.”

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