I go to work every day at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in a building named after the founder of the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, William Saunders. Every day I am reminded that the university at which I have spent the past five years at one time deemed it acceptable and desirable to commemorate the legacy of Saunders and the Klan as a white supremacist establishment. The building was inaugurated in 1922, thirty-one years after Saunders death, supposedly to acknowledge the contributions that he made to compiling historical records from North Carolina’s colonial days. However, the 1920s is well-documented as a decade in which the Ku Klux Klan made a strong resurgence in the U.S., with over four million officially enlisted members. Commemorating the legacy of the founder of the KKK in North Carolina hardly seems a coincidence, given the specific historical moment. Rather, it would appear that University leaders saw the Klan as a positive force, not only during Saunders’ time, but at the moment the building was constructed, as well.
A movement has cropped up at UNC around the entrenched nature of racism on campus. A courageous group of undergraduate students known as the Real Silent Sam Coalition has pushed the administration, and their fellow classmates, to recognize what honoring Saunders means for everyone at the University. Their demand regarding the building is simple; rename Saunders Hall. This call has drawn on both personal experiences and historical studies to justify their claims. At the center of this claim is the insistence that UNC recognize the violence that acted as the foundation for the University.
Personally, I am deeply affected by the violence of this legacy on many levels. As a scholar of Black populations and geographies in the Americas, I recognize the role that the Klan has played in the marginalization, dispossession, mutilation, and murder of African-Americans in the United States. As a student of color, I recognize the harmful effects that the legacy of white supremacy has on minority students forced to live, day to day, within an institution that was born of pernicious racial domination. Perhaps most viscerally, however, as the grandson of sharecroppers from Tennessee, I recognize and abhor the terror that was and is fundamental to the Klan’s activities, and what this has meant to not only those that lost their lives to Klan activities, but to those that lived in the shadow of that potential violence.
Student protest outside Saunders Hall.
My grandparents picked cotton as sharecroppers outside of Memphis in the early 20th century—a time when Klan activity was prominent throughout the United States. Every time I walk through the doors to Saunders Hall, I am forced to accept the fact that the University I attend continues to honor the founder of a terrorist organization that intimidated and persecuted people like my grandparents. Just as Saunders stood for the destruction of Black lives, Saunders Hall, by honoring his memory, continues to stand for the normalizing of violence against people of color.
I, like the members of the Real Silent Sam Coalition, am not demanding that we change the name of Saunders Hall in order to forget what occurred both in North Carolina and the wider United States. Rather, I am suggesting that the University take a stand and rename the building in honor of someone that did not contribute to the reign of terror that typified post-bellum America, while acknowledging the fact that this will always remain a part of University history.
UNC was clear, in 1922, where its values stood. It is time for the current University administration to decide where it stands. By not changing the name of the building or having any meaningful public pronouncement on the topic, the University suggests that either it is in accord with its 1922 predecessors, or that it is too scared to stand up to those that still are in accord with them.
Adam Bledsoe is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.