“In 1922, the university named its new history department building for William L. Saunders to recognize his work as a compiler of historical documents. Saunders graduated from UNC in 1854 and then practiced law in Salisbury, North Carolina. During the Civil War, he served as a colonel and was wounded in two battles. In 1869–1870, he became known as the chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina and Chapel Hill. When Democrats regained power in North Carolina, Saunders became Secretary of State and arranged for the publication of North Carolina’s colonial records in a series on which historians still rely. He served as a university trustee from 1874 until 1891.”
I’ve recently come to a conclusion about myself. I am neither a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person. It is both. I just depends on the perspective you are coming from.
I can’t remember when I learned about the history of Saunders Hall. I think it was in either my first or second year of my PhD Studies at UNC. It was shocking at first, but given the locale of the school and its history it was to be expected. We are in the south and the University, from its roots, was connected to slavery. And so, the University had a respected Trustee and an amazing historical collection directly tied to the chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan. Noted.
As a disclaimer, and because I should, let me acknowledge that I know many of the students in the video. We’ve had coursework together. They are all amazing scholars. I think what they are doing is absolutely necessary… just probably not for the same reasons they do. I am not ready to kick the KKK out of the University. In fact, I doubt I ever will be. For me Saunders is one of two things (the other being our furniture being made by inmates), that help me connect students to larger systems of oppression in tangible ways. This protest is good from my perspective, because it opens up a larger conversation about the structural racism that is part of the University by design. If every time people walk through the doors of Saunders they are reminded of the KKK, that isn’t a bad thing. It is the history of the Institution.
Julian Carr spoke at the dedication of the monument in 1913. His speech recounted the heroic efforts of the men the monument honored as well as the women on the home front. The speech also spoke to the racialized nature of the commemoration as Carr tells this story: “100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I 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 politics of teaching at a Flagshship southern University are complex. Saunders is not the the only thing brought out to highlight the racist past of the University. Silent Sam, the statue made in Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University. It’s inscription reads:
ERECTED UNDER THE AUSPICES / OF THE / NORTH CAROLINA DIVISION / OF THE UNITED DAUGHTERS OF / THE CONFEDERACY / AIDED BY THE ALUMNI OF / THE UNIVERSITY
Right: TO THE SONS OF THE UNIVERSITY / WHO ENTERED THE WAR OF 1861–65 / IN ANSWER TO THE CALL OF THEIR / COUNTRY AND WHOSE LIVES / TAUGHT THE LESSON OF / THEIR GREAT COMMANDER THAT / DUTY IS THE SUBLIMEST WORD / IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
The statue is a constant point of struggle for meaning and signification of what the University means today, much like Saunders hall is in this moment.
As someone who has the privilege to teach at the University of North Carolina (and I do consider it a privilege), I do not know where students stand on these issues. What I do know is that the school has a committment to admitting students from North Carolina, which is why our percentage of students from North Carolina in 2014 was 62%. A majority of the students were in the top 10% of their class. The students at UNC are absolutely amazing. And, given that 72% are white, there is a chance some of them might have ancestors that had some relation to the racist past of the University. I am also pretty sure that most if not all of them are descendents of the Vanderbilts.
Anderson Cooper can side with the slave that killed his family member because his family is exceptional. For those who are stuck in a world where “life might have been better if my ancestor had survived the civil war”, or, my family member was a member of the KKK but that was normal at the time, or those students today who don’t realize that almost every student at UNC was in the top 10% of their classes and feel as though having to share the classroom with lesser people today is unfair, to ask them to denounce their family members and feelings seems unfair. These students have been in my courses and they need to be heard. Where they are coming from is valid. Just as it is valid to be on the other side, asking for these things to dissapear.
I think my second year of teaching was when I started noticing a demographic shift in my courses. Even though the University is 11% Black or African American, and 8% Latino/a my culture courses were made up of a disproportionate amount young black women, young latino men, and students that identified as queer and/or feminist in addition to the normal people that ended up in my courses because they were major or general ed requirements. I had many of these students that are often conceptualized as being the other as students in multiple courses (usually two, but I had a few of the young black women in 3–4 of my courses), and I got to know them.
There was a day with two of my repeat students, their senior year, least semester, that I will never forget. They were working on an assignment in class and I was going around checking in on every one. They were at a table together and they both looked shell shocked. I asked them what happened and they said they were in a class talking about feminism and everything they said was attacked. One of women was a fighter, so she spoke up. She said everything she said was completely shut down by their classmates and the professor. She was told her experience was invalid. The other girl didn’t speak during the class. But she wasn’t a big talker. She felt it though, and we had a discussion. They asked me if it would get better once they left school. I told them “No, but it will be different and easier to manage”. I then asked the quiet one why she didn’t speak up during classes because 1. She was wicked smart, 2. she has a lot to say. Her response was “I didn’t know I was allowed to speak”.
That stopped me. I came home an cried. I called my grandmother. I called my best friend. I called everyone. One of the smartest students I ever had was in her last semester at what she’d taken away from such an amazing institution was “I’m not allowed to speak”. I was angry because I’d had similar experiences in grad seminars, culminating with professors asking the entire class “if I was making them uncomfortable too”. All this for pointing out how some things about race and gender are not generalizable in the way we often like to do when we move to talking through theory or about technology. During my coursework had grad seminars stop and need to do something akin to group therapy because I brought up race.
There is a lived experience of these things that is still alive and well at the University, and will continue to be so even if we change the name of Saunders Hall to Hurston. And, for the students like my students who feel like courses are still designed to break them down and silence them, without that thing to point to to remind others that the University was built by slavery and racism, they will have nothing but fading memories. Their bodies, already imagined as out of place in the classrooms they worked hard to be in, will have to bear the burden of the name change as well. Their valid discomfort will be negated again because “we changed the name for you all, why are you still complaining?” The protest is good because it means we are talking about this, but I worry that the discomfort of few being eased will increase the suffering of others in the future who already feel like they cannot speak.
My fear is that if we change the name of the building before we’ve confronted the history of the University we will shut down conversation that needs to happen from all sides to move things forward. Sort of like how “Slavery and the Making of the University”, an online exhibit that documented the slave (modernly racist) roots of UNC (that were normal for the time period even if we understand they are awful today), no longer exists in the official digital space where it once lived. We can still see it through the Wayback Machine though. And who knows, I could be wrong, and changing the name of the building could be exactly what needs to be done.