Education

Students want UNC to rename building named after KKK organizer

Posted January 28, 2015 7:37 p.m. EST
Updated January 28, 2015 8:28 p.m. EST

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.