Past and Present Judgment: What the Committee Heard About Renaming Saunders Hall

These are excerpts from some of the speakers at the March 25 meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees University Affairs Committee about whether the name of William Saunders should be removed from Saunders Hall. For two hours, the committee listened to eight invited speakers, who were evenly divided on the issue. Those who were there found the event captivating. You can watch it in its entirety on the University’s YouTube channel.

Jim Leloudis ’77 (’89 PhD)
history professor and head of UNC
’s Honors Program
I’ve been on this campus long enough to see this issue come around and around and around again — things are said, things are done, and there is no kind of ongoing legacy and engagement with these issues. And I think that we are a weaker institution. Now, I understand and respect the concern expressed by some members of the community that there might be a risk here of imposing modern-day standards on actors who lived in a very different time and under very different circumstances. I understand their concern, but I also think it’s misplaced for two reasons.

First, if we’re not to judge the past in the light of our own moral principles, then I wonder how we’re to evaluate and learn from it. It won’t do to say that Saunders and his compatriots engaged in reprehensible behavior and then to add that it’s not our place to judge them because they were, after all, simply men of their time — a time in which racism was commonplace. That strikes me as a rather unsettling form of moral relativism that leaves the past utterly unaccountable to those of us to live with its legacy today.

And second, I think that concern about treating the past unfairly is grounded in historic inaccuracy. The fact of the matter is that the story of race in public life in North Carolina during the second half of the 19th century is quite complex and quite remarkable. On two occasions, first in the late 1860s and then again in the mid- to late 1890s, black North Carolinians and their white allies — about a third of white citizens — joined forces, forged powerful biracial political alliances and won control of state government. They did so for the first time in 1868 under the banner of the Republican party, and they gave us a new constitution, a constitution that for the first time in North Carolina’s history mandated the establishment of a system of public schools and guaranteed universal male suffrage. We still live with that constitution today.

And then in the 1890s, black Republicans and white populists joined in what they called a fusion alliance. Together they won control of the Legislature and the governor’s office. And this is important because this is the only time in the only place in the South where biracial politics were that successful. And the fusionists again ushered in an era of reform that included expanded investment in public schools, the founding of a land grant college for African-Americans, and passage of one of the fairest election laws in this state’s history. William Saunders and men of his ilk could not defeat those alliances at the ballot box so they turned to violence, violence perpetrated by the Klan in the 1860s and by vigilantes known as the Red Shirts in the 1890s.

Alston Gardner ’77
trustee and chair of the trustees’ University Affairs Committee
In some of the public statements, some minority students have questioned if they belonged at UNC. Let me start by saying, let’s be very direct, clear and unequivocal — you belong here. This is as much your University as any other student, any other alumnus, of the University. You’re a critical part. We admitted you to UNC. You are part of our family. You are part of our community.

Omololu Babatunde, senior
Real Silent Sam Coalition
We feel more than ever that the time is now to take a stand and reflect the moral character and intellectual maturity of UNC students and leadership. Our nation is wrestling with the demons that Saunders loosed on the southern part of heaven. … If we choose to keep Saunders Hall as a marker of UNC’s character, we will find ourselves, ultimately, on the wrong side of history again.

Alfred Brophy
law professor
I hope we will have a project that puts William Saunders into context so that we will learn about him and his ideas and the ideas that set back the course of racial progress for decades.

But I hope we will look at that alongside people like William Gaston of the N.C. Supreme Court, who spoke against slavery in 1832, over in Gerrard Hall, as well as enslaved people whose labor helped build this school and to sustain it and how in the 20th century this school sometimes supported Jim Crow and in other times opposed it. The University of North Carolina, once built by slaves, is now dedicated to a very different issue.

A building name by itself can’t present complexity and chaos of our history in which the labor of enslaved people who would never see this institution funded it, and many generations later we become known for our role in excellent education for everybody without regard to race, and we’re known especially for opportunities for students of modest means. Only a comprehensive history can do that.

Taylor Webber-Fields, senior
Real Silent Sam Coalition
This fight to rename Saunders is not a new thing. People have been organizing around this site and the legacy of white supremacy that it reflects on and off since 1999.  You ask us: What would it mean to rename Saunders? We ask you: What would it mean not to? What would it mean to generations of incoming students to continue to enter an environment that endorses racial violence? What does it mean to generations of students to know that, despite our vocalized dissent, attacks against our personhood continue to go unchallenged? We are all UNC students, and we will continue to mobilize until our campus environment reflects that.

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