Archived: UNC Students Rally to Rename Building Honoring KKK Leader

By Julissa Catalan

Students at one of the oldest public education institutions in the country think it’s time for their school to get on the right side of history.

The Real Silent Sam Coalition—a student- and alumni-created organization that hopes “to create honest and public dialogue and provoke critical thought surrounding the monuments and buildings in Chapel Hill”—is behind Rename Saunders, a campaign initiative aiming to change the name of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill building that honors Ku Klux Klan leader William L. Saunders.

Saunders, a UNC alum and university trustee, was also a Colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

He graduated from the university in 1854 and was a Grand Dragon for the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan by the late 1860s. He went on to serve as North Carolina’s Secretary of State from 1874 to 1891.

UNC-Chapel Hill was established in 1795, and is known as the nation’s oldest public university. University historian Cecelia Moore says the campus reflects the nation’s history, including the racial tensions of that time.

“This physical space reflects much of the history of the country,” she said. “We have not done enough as a country to acknowledge the truly troubled parts of our history. And that, specifically, is how we have treated nonwhite people.”

Saunders’ KKK roots are even documented on the school’s website.

“The Real Silent Sam strives to denounce the invisiblized white-supremacist narratives that undergird UNC,” campaign organizer Omololu Babatunde said in a statement. “By instigating further conversation on alternative histories, we are attempting to address the collective historical amnesia we suffer from as a community.”

Launched April 9, Rename Saunders already has more than 780 signatures on an online petition. Using the hashtag #kickoutthekkk, Rename Saunders is also using social media as a major broadcaster for its initiative.

In a statement to The Huffington Post, Dr. Lowry Caudill, Chair of the University’s board of trustees, said: “We encourage them to share their research and thoughts with us. I know Vice Chair Alston Gardner has had conversations with students on this topic and we look forward to hearing from them. It’s important to note that the university has a policy on renaming campus facilities, which would be our guideline in any such conversation.”

The policy reads: “If the benefactor’s or honoree’s reputation changes substantially so that the continued use of that 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. However, caution must be taken when, with the passage of time, the standards and achievements deemed to justify a naming action may change and observers of a later age may deem those who conferred a naming honor at an earlier age to have erred. Namings should not be altered simply because later observers would have made different judgments.”

UNC’s Vice Provost for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, Taffye Clayton, believes cultivating an inclusive campus climate is in fact important at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“What we know as diversity-and-inclusion practitioners is that organizations and leaders must work consistently to integrate the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion into the fabric,” she said.

The Real Silent Sam Coalition is scheduled to meet with the board of trustees later in May.

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