Sam can stay as long as he explains himself. William Saunders needs to leave.
That was the message of the Real Silent Sam Coalition, who attracted about 200 people to a McCorkle Place rally Friday to demand that the name of Saunders — an 1854 graduate of the University and the North Carolina leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 19th century — be removed from the classroom building it has adorned for 93 years.
It was possibly the most passionate and angriest of periodic protests centered around UNC’s memorial to alumni who died in the Civil War. Several speakers said the University administration is deaf to the issues of students of color, interested only in using them to proclaim Carolina’s diversity.
Previous rallies have been general cries for attention to problems some students have with the names of several acknowledged white supremacists on campus buildings and with what they say Silent Sam represents; this one was distinguished by an unambiguous focus on three demands: That Saunders Hall be renamed for African-American author and civil rights activist Zora Neale Hurston, who studied briefly and without official admittance at the then-segregated UNC in 1939-40; that a plaque be placed with Silent Sam to clarify the University’s racial history; and that freshman orientation include a primer on UNC’s not-so-proud past.
The rally ended with a promise that demonstrations will begin on Monday on the lawn of Saunders.
“We absolutely refuse to be complacent about these issues any longer,” said Erika Baker, a senior who opened the rally by saying that the coalition had been ignored in repeated attempts to get the attention of UNC leaders such as the trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors.
A speaker playing the role of Julian Carr (class of 1866) repeated portions of the speech Carr gave at the dedication of Silent Sam in 1913, including Carr’s boast that shortly after he returned from service in the Civil War, near the site of the statue, he “horse-whipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”
The rally continued with a brief chant of “Negro wench,” and Baker added, “These are the sentiments of hate and violence that live and breathe on our campus.”
Others complained that UNC administrators have defended Saunders’ name on the campus, saying he “allegedly” led the Klan and that he was “a man of his time.”
“White supremacy knows no time,” one said. “It’s time for UNC to make the journey from ‘Negro wench’ to Hurston Hall.”
Chancellor Carol L. Folt released a statement three days in advance of the rally that read: “I have spoken to many student groups across campus and listened to our faculty, staff and alumni who have expressed their different perspectives on the issue surrounding Saunders Hall. A part of Carolina’s history is inextricably linked with difficult issues of race and class, and how we address those issues today is important. The Board of Trustees is taking a close look at how we can best move forward, guided by their policy on renaming campus buildings.
“In the meantime, we will create and support opportunities for respectful dialogue, and we will work even harder to help our community demonstrate our commitment to Carolina’s core values of inclusion and respect.”
UNC also released a portion of its policy on building naming that reads: “If the benefactor’s or honoree’s reputation changes substantially so that the continued use of that name may compromise the public trust, dishonor the University’s standards, or otherwise be contrary to the best interests of the University, the naming may be revoked. However, caution must be taken when, with the passage of time, the standards and achievements deemed to justify a naming action may change and observers of a later age may deem those who conferred a naming honor at an earlier age to have erred. Namings should not be altered simply because later observers would have made different judgments.”