Two former members of the inter-fraternity society called the Ku Klux Klan have spaces on campus named after them. Stephen Kantrowitz, a history professor at UW-Madison, said while doing research, he and his colleagues decided not to rename the spaces right away.
“The place we landed was that if we began by saying our job is to determine which names to scrub from which buildings, that that would probably be the beginning and the end of what we could do,” Kantrowitz said.
Fitz Brundage, a history professor at UNC, said buildings named after people with racist or white supremacist associations can take a toll on students of color and students from marginalized communities — and UNC students are no exception.
“It’s a reminder that you’re here now, but you wouldn’t have been here in the past, and this is a space that you’ve only recently been allowed into,” he said. “To me, Silent Sam is a monument that performs that function every day for any student of color who walks by it.”
UNC confronted racist history on its own campus in 2015 when Saunders Hall was renamed Carolina Hall. The building was named after William Saunders, a purported leader of the KKK in the 19th century. In addition to renaming Saunders Hall, UNC’s Board of Trustees voted to not allow any other buildings to be renamed for 16 years and to place accurate historical markers around campus.
Brundage said universities must consider both the intended meaning and any other meaning a building or monument has when deciding how to address difficult history.
“I think universities are well-suited to engage in these types of undertakings because we have people who have the appropriate expertise,” he said. “Universities should be spaces where conversations about fraught topics can be held.”
Kantrowitz said university officials should aim to create a sense of belonging among students and allow students to feel entitled to the education they are receiving.
“I’m concerned about creating educational institutions that don’t simply react to a moment of discomfort but lean into that discomfort and try to understand their history in a richer and fuller way,” he said. “That’s why the recovery of those voices and people who resisted are so important.”