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After renaming of Saunders Hall, activists still see their work as unfinished

A UNC worker takes down Saunders' name from Carolina Hall.

A UNC worker takes down Saunders' name from Carolina Hall.

The Board of Trustees voted at their May meeting to ban changing building names for the next 16 years.

“There’s more anger now than when we began,” board member Haywood Cochrane said.

Board chairman Lowry Caudill said the board could have picked any amount of time, but they chose 16 years so four generations of students could debate future name changes.

“Sixteen years to pause and get this right, we thought, was an appropriate thing to do,” Caudill said at the press conference.

Cochrane, who voted against the name change, said the time period could change depending on the success of the program to educate students on the racial and geographic history of the campus.

“I think of it more as a pause for reflection because we need a cooling off period after this,” he said.

Despite the ban, The Real Silent Sam Coalition is determined to change the name to Hurston Hall, even if it is not official.

“My principal’s daughter wants to come to UNC, and I’m going to tell her about my experiences as a black woman on campus,” senior Janell Smith said. “These issues won’t die in 16 years because we’ll keep them alive.”

The coalition is planning to host a ribbon cutting ceremony in the Fall with members of Zora Neale Hurston’s family, where they will dedicate and “rename” the hall after Hurston.

“The 16-year moratorium on renaming historic buildings and monuments is a lazy attempt to extinguish the anti-racist social movement on our campus, nothing more,” the coalition said in a statement.

The first documented, organized effort to rename Saunders Hall came from a group called Students Seeking Historical Truth in October 1999. Students in this group hung nooses in the trees around the building and hung KKK banners throughout the building.

“When people got to work that day, they didn’t know what to think, because the people who did this hadn’t told anyone about it except people working the night shift in the building,” Altha Cravey, a geography professor who works in Saunders Hall, said. “It was like a crime scene.”

Cravey, who has worked in Saunders Hall since 1994, said people have questioned the name since she began at UNC.

Yonni Chapman, a former graduate student and community activist, studied the racial history of UNC’s campus. His work serves as the basis for organizing efforts around Saunders Hall and Silent Sam.

The Real Silent Sam Coalition formed around 2011. The coalition had three demands: to contextualize the Silent Sam monument, rename Saunders Hall after Hurston and to create an educational program on the University’s racial history.

The activists rallied around the name “Hurston Hall” this past year. Student activists with The Real Silent Sam Coalition believe Hurston attended UNC in secret and worked with professors before the school was integrated.

“At this point, it’s not good enough just to rename it,” Alex Biggers, an activist with The Real Silent Sam Coalition, said before the board’s vote. “It has to be Hurston.”

In the 724 comments received by the board, Hurston was mentioned as a possible namesake 279 times. Hurston was not mentioned in the board meeting.

When asked about the name “Hurston Hall,” board member Alston Gardner said in a press conference after the vote that he could not find enough evidence to prove Hurston attended UNC. Cochrane said the name “Carolina Hall” came from a source outside the board.

“We wanted a name that was a unifying name,” Caudill said at the press conference. “We wanted a name that we could reach back to where we started, where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re headed. We felt that at this point in time, a unifying name was important.”

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Smith said she wishes the board told students there wasn’t evidence for Hurston.

“All halls here are Carolina Halls,” said Smith. “It’s so generic and easy. Even if they did the research and still found that Zora Neale Hurston didn’t have enough of a connection to UNC, they couldn’t find one black person they wanted to honor?”

Nikhil Umesh, an activist with the coalition and former columnist for The Daily Tar Heel said people who did not want to see the name changed are also unhappy with the name Carolina Hall.

“I think the board believes that naming it Carolina Hall isn’t a political move, but it’s the most politically contentious thing they could have done,” Umesh said. “They said the biggest concern for them was erasing history, but now they’ve lost all racial context. People will see Carolina Hall, and they won’t learn anything about Saunders’ involvement with the KKK.”