William L. Saunders’ name is coming off the building on Polk Place where it has been in place for nearly a century.
Replacing it will be a name that UNC’s trustees hope will be a unifying one: Carolina Hall.
Trustees voted 10-3 Thursday to make the changes in an effort to address long-standing concerns of students, faculty and staff members who wanted a place where they learn and work to not carry the name of the reputed former Ku Klux Klan leader, a member of UNC’s class of 1854. The split vote reflected divisions about how best to address UNC’s racial history.
Thursday marked the first time trustees had changed the name of a building because of a person’s behavior. The three trustees who dissented were Peter Grauer ’68, who is rotating off of the board; Haywood Cochrane ’70, who is in line to become the board’s vice chair; and Dwight Stone ’73, who is expected to be the board’s new chair.
“We’re not changing history,” said Alston Gardner ’77, trustees vice chair and chair of their University Affairs Committee. “We’re shining a bright light on it.”
That bright light is intended to be cast by historical markers for what has been Saunders Hall and for McCorkle Place, which is home to the controversial Silent Sam memorial honoring Confederate soldiers. The markers are envisioned to provide a complete history of each place.
A decision on Saunders’ name had long been expected this month. In something more of a surprise, the trustees also voted unanimously to impose a 16-year freeze on renaming other campus buildings. This step, they said, is intended to allow the University time to develop new education initiatives and evaluate their effectiveness. The moratorium means Aycock Residence Hall will stay as it is, at least in the near-term. The name of Charles Aycock has been removed from buildings at Duke and East Carolina universities; Aycock (class of 1880), a former governor noted for his work in education, has been tied to the early 20th century’s white supremacist movement.
Gardner acknowledged that there were a number of troublesome people in Carolina’s history. But Saunders’ case was different, he said, than someone having objectionable racist views. “This was the institution honoring someone for being the leader of a terrorist organization, and that’s just not going to fly,” he said.
The trustees’ decision met mixed reactions. Willie Wright was one of at least three people who attended the meeting wearing a shirt that read “#HurstonHall,” calling on trustees to rename the building after Zora Neale Hurston, a black novelist and anthropologist who attended Carolina briefly in 1940, before UNC was integrated.
“I think it was really neutral naming,” said Wright, a doctoral student in the department of geography, which along with religious studies is housed in Saunders Hall. “It was a way to try to appease students who were demanding that the building be renamed, which students have been doing for over a decade now,” without bowing to their other demand that the building be named after someone such as Hurston, who resonates with the African-American community, he said.
Deborah Stroman ’86 (MA), a member of the business school faculty and chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, said the decision “sends another signal that Carolina is a caring and thoughtful institution.” But the renaming risks removing the light that now shines on racist sentiments that are still alive and well in North Carolina, she said.
Stroman also was concerned with the 16-year freeze, pointing out that the resolution did not address who would be evaluating the education programs and how they would be measured. The freeze also seemed arbitrary, she said. “I don’t think it takes 16 years to evaluate if something’s working.”
There are several other buildings on campus named after people tied to white supremacy, including the Julian Shakespeare Carr Building, Josephus Daniels Student Stores, John Washington Graham Residence Hall, J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton Hall, Cameron Morrison Residence Hall, John J. Parker Residence Hall, Thomas Ruffin Residence Hall and Cornelia Phillips Spencer Hall.
A future Board of Trustees could eliminate the freeze. Nonetheless, Chair Lowry Caudill ’79 defended it, saying trustees were trying to create a stable environment so the University could develop new programs and teach Carolina’s history.
“Sixteen years is a small time in the history of an institution like this,” Caudill said. “We’ll be here 200 years from now. So 16 years to pause and get this right, we thought was an appropriate thing to do.”
The trustees’ decision came in response to mounting pressure across campus. In May 2014, students submitted an 800-signature petition calling for the renaming. Eighty-four faculty members and graduate students in the geography and religious studies departments also have been behind the effort to remove Saunders’ name.
Gardner said a number of other historical figures were recommended to trustees, but none seemed to have strong enough connections to UNC to warrant a building in their honor.
Questions about Saunders Hall date at least as far back as 1999, when the Black Student Movement began protesting the building’s name. In 2000, the group Students Seeking Historical Truth called for the building’s name to be changed and a plaque erected to provide the complete history of the Silent Sam monument.
Several years ago, a committee organized by then-Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 recommended creating a website describing the history of UNC’s buildings and monuments and establishing a process for regularly reviewing memorials, among other things. Thorp never acted on those recommendations.
More recently, the Real Silent Sam Coalition, which describes itself as an “alliance organization of students, faculty, staff and community members,” had been leading the charge for a name change. While the group has been around for a while, it started making more forceful demands about Saunders Hall about a year ago. And in January it released a manifesto calling for Saunders’ name to be replaced with someone who had a more positive association with African-Americans.
Trustees spent months gathering opinions about whether Saunders’ name should be removed. They held discussions with more than 200 students, faculty, alumni and national experts and invited some to speak at one of their meetings earlier this year. The Daily Tar Heel reported more than 700 individuals also submitted comments online. Gardner said he received “literally thousands of emails” on the subject.
Some people still argue about whether Saunders actually led North Carolina’s Ku Klux Klan. There is no primary documentation or written evidence that indicates Saunders held that position; it was a felony to be a Klan member at that time. Critics say it hardly matters given that when trustees voted in 1922 to name the building in Saunders’ honor, they believed he was a Klansman and in fact cited his leadership as one of his qualifications.
On Saunders’ tombstone are the words “I decline to answer,” a reference to his response when he was called before a congressional committee to testify about his alleged Klan activities. The committee took no action against him.
Several universities across the country have faced controversy over building names and their ties to slavery and white supremacy. Besides the Duke and East Carolina removal of Aycock’s name, UNC-Greensboro is debating eliminating his name from Aycock Auditorium; that building is a performing arts space used by the community at large.