UNC trustees signal they could revisit issue of buildings named for white supremacists

UNC trustees signal they could revisit issue of buildings named for white supremacists

Protesters on the UNC Chapel Hill campus want to see the names removed from a number of campus buildings named for slave owners and avowed white supremacists. (Photo by Joe Killian)

A year ago this month, students and activists toppled “Silent Sam,” the Confederate statue that stood on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill for more than a century.

Now community members and students of North Carolina’s flagship university are taking aim at what they call another historical eyesore: campus buildings named for slave owners and avowed white supremacists.

The school currently has a self-imposed moratorium on renaming buildings, but this week, university and UNC system leaders suggested that it is possible, and even likely, that the issue will be revisited.

“Obviously, anything is up for discussion,” said Richard Stevens, chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees. “There haven’t been any recent plans to re-open the discussion, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Maybe stories like this will help start that discussion again.”

Stevens said a lot of people, including himself, have undergone an evolution of thought on who and what the university should honor.

“It’s kind of like my changing perspective on Silent Sam,” Stevens said.

When he was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Stevens said he never thought about the history and symbolism of Silent Sam, or of the names honored on the campus buildings where he lived and studied. When he was first on the board of trustees in the 1990s, before leaving to spend five terms as a state senator, he said the issue was not on his radar.

These days, things are different.

“I’ve had the benefit of more frequent discussions with students and with faculty of color,” Stevens said. “I understand much better now their opposition to Silent Sam and now my position is I don’t think it should come back to McCorkle Place.”

Richard Stevens

He also believes the renaming of buildings may merit study and discussion once again, he said – something that may have already been signaled by a recent memo to the community from UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

In the message, sent last week, Guskiewicz announced the launch of the university’s Commission on History, Race and Reckoning.

“The circumstances that lead members of our community to feel more or less welcome on our campus are complex and rooted in our University’s history and the history of our country,” Guskiewicz said in the message. “I recognize my responsibility, and the responsibility of our campus leadership, to make the campus safer, more welcoming and more inclusive. Making this a reality requires hard work, and I am grateful to everyone for the crucial role they are playing. Each one of you – students, faculty and staff – have earned your place at Carolina, and you deserve an environment where you can thrive.”

Harry Smith, the powerful chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said this week he wasn’t aware of the moratorium on renaming buildings at Chapel Hill.

But he said renaming buildings should be handled at the campus level.

Harry Smith

Smith pointed out East Carolina University – his alma mater – removed the name of one-time North Carolina governor Charles B. Aycock, a noted white supremacist, from a campus dorm in 2015.

“At ECU, they made a decision they thought was in their best interest,” Smith said. “I don’t know how much of a different viewpoint I’ve got on that. I think we should have more local autonomy at the local level. My view and opinion right now is the more latitude we give the campuses, the better. They know who they are better than anybody.”

Smith’s comments might be surprising to some longtime critics of the board, who’ve slammed the Board of Governors in the past for their involvement in campus matters in Chapel Hill and at ECU. 

Yet, if UNC decides to remove or change the names of buildings because it is the community’s will, Smith said, nobody – including the board of governors – should try to stand in the way.

“That’s my personal opinion,” Smith said. “They know their culture. They know what they’re doing.”

A student movement, again

Last week, students spotlighted the university’s complex and troubling history on race during the one-year anniversary celebration of the toppling of Silent Sam.

Standing before the campus’ Old Well, students, alumni and activists held placards with the names of 28 buildings named for white supremacists and “enslavers” – a term many prefer to the more neutral-sounding “slave owner.”

“It’s a history that a lot of people never think about,” said Daneille Dulken, a PhD student who spoke on the issue last week. “But when you begin looking into who the buildings on campus are named after and why, you realize the power of the built environment. You realize UNC is a predominantly and historically white university, and you think about what it means for a southern, historically white university to leverage power through place.”

Now students – mostly undergraduate women and students of color – are pushing the issue back into the light. And it’s hardly the first time.

Students have pushed for the renaming of buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill for decades, arguing that men and women who owned slaves, fought for the Confederacy to preserve slavery and wrote white supremacist tracts after slavery was abolished do not reflect the university’s values or deserve to be honored.

As with the movement against “Silent Sam,” they faced significant resistance from university administration, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and some members of the Board of Governors.

But in 2015, they scored a qualified victory, when the Board of Trustees agreed to rename Saunders Hall. The building was named for William Saunders – a Confederate colonel, UNC trustee and leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. The trustees faced mounting pressure to remove his name, but stopped short of renaming it for Black anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, as many students preferred. Instead, they opted for the more neutral “Carolina Hall,” and also imposed a 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings on campus.

Stevens said he would have voted to remove Saunders’ name from the building had he been on the board then. But he also understands why the board put a moratorium in place.

“They wanted some time to do some in-depth review and study,” said Stevens. “We’ve done that and it looks like we’re going to have some more discussion of it with this newly announced commission that is building on that work.”

The moratorium also gave the board and then-newly-named Chancellor Carol Folt some distance from a hot political issue before it was revisited, former Board of Trustees Chair Lowry Caudill told The Daily Tar Heel after the change was approved in 2015.

“We could have picked any time, but we picked 16 years because that would give us four full generations of students, eight full boards of trustees; it gives Carol some time at Carolina,” Caudill said. “We wanted an extended period of time to allow this to root.”

Folt resigned her position last year amid tensions with the UNC Board of Governors surrounding Silent Sam’s removal. Though she equivocated on the statue throughout her tenure as chancellor, she spoke out against its return to campus shortly before her resignation. One of her last actions as chancellor was to order the base of the statue removed – a move that incensed some members of the UNC Board of Governors. The board accepted her resignation immediately, but did not allow her to finish out the school year as she had hoped.

The student movement to rename buildings has only grown stronger since 2015, getting a particular boost after Silent Sam’s toppling.

“They told us that statue couldn’t be removed, but it was,” Dulken said. “I think that gave us a lot of hope in what’s possible when a community comes together. It showed the power of that.”

Wrestling with history

The moratorium on renaming buildings at Chapel Hill has had another unusual effect, Dulken said.

It’s led to UNC satellite campuses like UNC-Greensboro and ECU – and even UNC rival, Duke University, a private school – voluntarily removing Confederate symbols and white supremacist names from their buildings as Chapel Hill, the university system’s flagship campus, makes no progress on the issue.

“I went to Western Carolina University as an undergrad,” Dulken said. “So I know what UNC means as a flagship campus. I know that when things happen here, people everywhere pay attention.”

That makes the current moratorium on renaming buildings particularly embarrassing, Dulken said. But if the moratorium were to be lifted, it could also have a domino effect throughout the system.

UNC Historian Harry Watson

Harry Watson, Atlanta Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture at UNC, agrees on the importance of Chapel Hill as a flagship campus.

“I’ll go out on a limb and say because UNC-Chapel Hill is the flagship university and the oldest university people almost think of it as sacred space,” Watson said. “The symbolism of anything around here matters in a way that it might not as much at a school founded in the 1930s.”

It’s something that matters to people all over the state, Watson said – and especially to its students and alumni.

“Some schools have the feel of a place that’s there to carry out a transaction almost and deliver a certain product and that’s all,” Watson said. “Whereas UNC-Chapel Hill seems to embody hopes and dreams and aspirations – what we believe in and who we are – in ways that some other places don’t have, at least as much.”

That’s also why any movement to change who is honored on campus (and how) should be a student-led movement, Watson said.

It should also be done very carefully, he believes.

“It seems to me that the best way to handle it would be to get a list of the suspicious names, investigate them thoroughly to make sure no one has made a mistake and then do them all at once rather than have this drag on,” Watson said.

But care should be taken about the complexity of the campus’ history.

William Gaston is a good example, Watson said.

A prominent lawyer, legislator and state Supreme Court justice, Gaston was also a UNC trustee who called for the abolition of slavery in 1832. But despite his calls for abolition, Gaston died in 1844 as the owner of 200 slaves.

“People are complicated in a lot of ways that don’t always show up on a protest sign or in a demonstration,” Watson said.

The removal of these names may be necessary and may come to pass, Watson said, but it isn’t all that’s needed to confront a complicated history and address existing inequities.

“I feel an undercurrent and a sense that slavery and segregation – evil itself — are exceptional and outlying aspects of American reality,” Watson said. “That maybe if we just slice off all reminders that they happened, it will be as if they didn’t happen. The real pure, always admirable country will be out there. And I think that’s entirely unrealistic. Slavery is woven into our national fabric, into our history.”

“It may be very important to take the names down to create an environment for all people to benefit from the institution,” Watson continued. “I definitely support things like that. But that’s not the place to stop.”

Teresa Artis Neal

Teresa Artis Neal, a newly elected member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees, said she agreed.

As the board’s only Black member, she said she understands how students of color in particular may feel about the issue. But taking the time to do it properly is also important, she said.

“I think it is important that we have a conversation about [the possibility of renaming buildings],” Artis Neal said. “I think it’s important that we hear all voices on it. I respect the decision of the former board members to say let’s slow down and make sure we take the time to have a dialogue about this.”

Simply changing the names of buildings without providing the context for future generations to learn about the real and sometimes ugly history of the university would be a mistake, Artis Neal said.

“I think it’s important to be mindful of history – otherwise we repeat it,” she said. “You have to be careful how you deal with some issues so you don’t have generations who come and don’t have a sense of context for what’s happened before. We don’t want people to come and not appreciate the struggle that’s gone before. I don’t want to have an environment  where people think everything was peaches and cream. People have different ideas about markers of history. For some, they are platforms of motivation.”

There are a lot of issues that impact people of color at UNC-Chapel Hill more than the names on buildings, Artis Neal said.

“We still have issues related to recruiting, access, financial aid, faculty recruitment and retention,” she said. “I think if we can have this conversation and make sure that it is leading to those conversations, that’s a good thing.”