As minority students become aware of buildings honoring people of dubious distinction, campus officials grapple with issues concerning institutional history and racist legacies
By Paul Muschick
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Kristi Booker thought her fellow students didn’t know what they were talking about when they told her Saunders Hall here at the University of North Carolina’s main campus was named for a former Ku Klux Klan emperor.
But it made the 19-year-old sophomore curious, so she checked into it. Much to her disbelief, she found out that it likely was true. And not only that, several other buildings here are named after notable North Carolinians with dubious ties.
“A lot of people didn’t know about it,” says Saunders, a Spanish and communications major who has founded a group called “Students Seeking Historical Truth.” “The majority of people were as shocked as I was.”
The question now for Booker and students like her is what, if anything, to do about it. It’s a question an increasing number of minority students — especially in the South — must grapple with as they confront the vestiges of their institutions’ segregated past.
From statutes of Confederate war heroes to scholarships for “Whites only” to state songs with references to “massa” and “darkies” to Confederate flags, many African American students find it difficult to believe such remnants of past racism survive.
But Harry Amana, acting director of UNC’s Black Cultural Center, is not surprised.
The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill “is the oldest state campus in the country. It’s in the South, the Old South,” he says. “If you research people … you would find arch-sexists, racists and everything else.”
The harder, harsher reality is that many colleges and universities officials in the South contend that such things are part of their institutions’ historical fabric, and thus they are reluctant to tinker with centuries-old traditions.
And national experts say that even though minority college students today might make a fuss about those offensive items, they are much less likely to raise Cain like their protest-happy counterparts in the ‘60s and ‘70s did.
“Present-day students feel a sense of ownership in the institutions they go to,” says Dr. James E. Newton, a professor of Black studies at the University of Delaware. “Today’s students may not have the kind of ‘60s energy and direct-action protests — but they are beginning to look at their history.”
Indeed, minority students here at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, led by Booker, last month trekked across campus in the middle of the night and festooned Saunders Hall with nooses, KKK banners and posters explaining who the building was named after.
The controversial building’s namesake, William Lawrence Saunders, graduated from here in 1854 and went on to become a secretary of state for North Carolina, a member of the university’s trustee board and a co-founder of the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper.
But Marguerite E. Schumann writes in “The First State University — A Walking Guide,” a book on the history of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that it’s probable Saunders “was a militant leader of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Believed to be the emperor of the invisible empire, Saunders was arrested and hauled off to Washington, D.C., where he was ordered to appear before a congressional committee probing KKK activities.
But Saunders steadfastly refused to divulge any information, reportedly responding to the more than 100 questions put to him with: “I decline to answer.”
The university named the campus building after Saunders in 1922. It now houses the religious studies and geography departments. Booker contends that Saunders’ reputation makes him unfit to be the namesake.
Students Seeking Historical Truth held its first formal meeting late last month, a gathering that drew about 15 people. And the school’s history department held a campus-wide forum on the issue: “University Buildings: Racist Pasts and Current Meanings.”
Two students and two professors sat on a panel, answering questions from about 50 people who attended. There were mixed feelings about what to do about Saunders Hall. “I would personally like to see the name on Saunders changed,” Booker says. “But some people were concerned we would be erasing history.”
Still, administrators have hinted it is unlikely Saunders Hall will be renamed.
Dr. Richard J. Richardson, the provost here, says that college officials “respect diversity on campus.” But he adds, “We are future-oriented and want to leave the past where it is. I don’t think we’re in the business of name-changing.”
Newton, the Delaware professor who himself attended the University of North Carolina in the 1960s and was the first Black to receive a master’s of fine arts here, says modern-day southern colleges and universities find themselves caught in the middle by their not-so-proud pasts.
College and university administrators, he says, often must try and navigate a treacherous path of trying to respect those historical figures who helped build their campuses while being sensitive to their current students’ feelings at the same time.
He believes discussions such as the dialogue on the Chapel Hill campus are healthy, and he recommends that campus officials encourage debate about founding fathers and their possible past transgressions.
Newton contends that schools should remove the names of those who do not stand up to today’s standards but says another solution is to name new buildings, professorships and scholarships after minorities.
“Let us reflect some of heroes and heroines,” Newton said. “It does not allow one to believe that Blacks are merely interlopers on this campus.”
North Carolina has plenty of company in its dilemma. Earlier this year, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem took action after discovering a medical scholarship still on the books for Whites only.
University officials file papers in state court in September asking that the Whites-only clause, in place since 1961, be removed. The language was part of 38-year-old agreement that established the Dr. Hillory M. Wilder Scholarship Fund for “capable and earnest young men and women of the White race.”
The scholarship was funded by a family that left part of its estate to the university. The gift produces $18,000 to $26,000 annually in medical scholarships and no minority student has ever been denied money.
But the university’s petition asks the court to remove the racist wording because the restriction was “impossible, inappropriate and impracticable” and because it violates the Civil Rights Act.
The family had left a similar medical scholarship to Duke University, which changed the wording in 1979 to offer the money to Protestant residents of North Carolina, a Duke Medical Center spokesman says.
At North Carolina Central University, students protested an administration building named after Clyde Roark Hoey, a segregationist. The matter quickly died, though, because the uproar wasn’t very loud.
One thing Students Seeking Historical Truth is considering at UNC is having an annual event to remind people who Saunders was. Another is gathering support for a campus monument to Black public workers.
During events such as what’s occurring in Chapel Hill, the worst thing that could happen is for administrators and students could ignore the matter. At least talk about it, Newton said, so you don’t suggest “that the good ole’ boys system is still in order.”
That is occurring at UNC. The dean of students and other administrators attended the recent history department forum on the issue, Booker says, adding that she hopes to schedule a meeting with Richardson to further discuss her concerns.
But Newton says that no matter how the volatile issue is resolved here in Chapel Hill and on other campuses in the South, students should not expect to wipe away all the bad that happened in days gone by.
“What we don’t want to do is deny that that history exists. It’s not so much to be disrespecting of the past,” he says. Still, he contends that “it’s better to get rid of some of the baggage now than to take it to the next millennium.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com