Students want UNC to rename building named after KKK organizer

Posted January 28, 2015

Saunders Hall is a dignified-looking building, made of brick and framed by trees on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's historic Polk Place.
Its namesake is William Lawrence Saunders, an 1854 graduate who served as a colonel in the Civil War and eventually went on to become North Carolina's secretary of state.

But before his public service for the state, Saunders was the chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in the late 1860s.

Still, in 1922, UNC named its history department building for Saunders because he was instrumental in getting the state's colonial records published.

For the past year, students and alumni have petitioned UNC's Board of Trustees to rename the building in honor of African-American author Zora Neale Hurston, who briefly took classes at the university.

Arguing that the building's name doesn't reflect the university's diverse and inclusive nature, they have planned a #KickOutTheKKK rally for Friday afternoon on campus in front of a Confederate monument, known as "Silent Sam." Erected in the early 1900s, it too has been mired in controversy.

But should the university change the name of Saunders Hall? Opinions are as diverse as the Chapel Hill campus itself.

"I feel like Carolina wants to promote diversity," student Carlos Restrepos said. "I don't think there's enough time to be able to recover from the idea of the KKK."

Jaelyn Coates agrees.

"It was a different time, and the norms were a lot different than they are now. However, with someone like this – who was a known member of the KKK – I think that's a little different."

Student Matti Smith doesn't necessarily think Saunders Hall should be renamed.

"I just think that it is a part of our university that's been around for a while," she said. "It honestly shouldn't be something we place a priority on right now."

"It's a part of our culture, and it's a part of our history, and it's something we can't go back and change now," Smith added.

In a written statement Wednesday, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the Board of Trustees is "taking a close look" at the matter.

"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," she said. "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."

"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," Folt continued.

Under UNC's naming policy, if a building's current 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."

But it also advises caution, saying social conventions change over time.

"Namings should not be altered simply because later observers would have made different judgments," the policy says.


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  • Fred Garner May 28, 2015
    user avatar

    Well since the lead story is "closed for comments", I'll do it here.

    UNC will rename Saunders Hall....well heck, let's just rewrite all of the Civil War history and N.C.'s history.

    Board of Governors caving to the special interest.....again...

  • Shawn Kennedy Jan 30, 2015
    user avatar

    I have a idea lets take all of our history thats deemed too harsh and too politically incorrect to these young liberals without a clue and just leave it all out of the history books. Then we can all sing and live happily ever after in a everybody gets a trophy world. I feel very afraid for our world when this is the next generation .Its pitiful !

  • Shawn Kennedy Jan 30, 2015
    user avatar

    Well before you rename the building you need to come up with another nick name too. The tarheel nickname was what the North Carolina confederate soilders were called once upon a time...Oh My !!!

  • Floyd Bridges Jan 29, 2015
    user avatar

    Renaming this building because you are offended by the namesake is not too far from writing slavery out of the history books and pretended it never happened. It happened. It was real and it was pervasive.

    But slavery is in the past. African Americans should feel proud and vindicated that they overcame the evil Saunders represents and smile knowing that his rotten corpse must be spinning in his grave every time they walk into that building!

  • heelzfan4 Jan 29, 2015

    Here we are discussing a most news worthy subject (sarcasm!).....when Coach K. has dismissed a player from the Duke Basketball program. Maybe Coach K. thinks doing that will keep Duke University from getting investigated like UNC, and other schools. Sorry - but probably won't happen. However, if the player continued to mess up - Coach K. is their coach... Wonder if the player will sue?

  • keithjinnc Jan 29, 2015

    So, let me see if I got this right. To show the university’s “diversity” they want to change the name from a prominent citizen of North Carolina who made significant contributions to the state, to an “African-American “author who “briefly” took classes at UNC-CH? How is that being diverse? Another example of people with too much free time on their hands! The students driving this train need to stick to their studies; history has a tendency to write itself.

  • Bill of Rights Jan 29, 2015

    Saunders was probably involved in the Klan, but I'd argue that he wasn't the "organizer" (that distinction most likely belongs to Jacob Alson Long of Graham, NC). And even if Saunders was a Klan organizer, so were many other "society" men of the day.

    Case in point: Charles Aycock is (rightly) lauded as a champion of public education. He was also a staunch white supremicist and had quite a hand in the 1898 Wilmington Massacre. I don't hear any cries to tear down his monument at the Old State Capital.

    But I digress. I make no apologies for the Klan's behavior, then or now, but I do think it's simplistic and antithetical to an institution of higher learning to simply "sweep" history under the rug like this.

    I wonder how many people calling for this name change know what the Union League is, and why exactly the Klan rose in the first place? It's a complex time in our state's history, and it deserves to be more thoroughly understood before being whitewashed.

  • Spartacus Jan 29, 2015

    If we are so concerned with what certain people may have done in the past, at a time in which society was a great deal different from today, then let's start with Lincoln, and all things named for him. In his own words, "I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about, in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races."

  • kmanc4s Jan 29, 2015

    Leave the name as it is. Saunders positive contributions to the State of NC and the University far outweigh a brief association with the KKK.

  • OGE Jan 29, 2015

    Lets run away from history and bury it.