On May 28, 2015, the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees (BOT) voted in favor of creating a team of scholars to curate a history of William Saunders and the building formerly known as Saunders Hall. Chancellor Carol Folt commissioned The Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History to create an exhibit inside of Hurston Hall — what you may know now as Carolina Hall.
On Friday, Nov. 11, the Task Force unveiled the long-awaited results of its research, in fulfillment of a BOT resolution. The display, set within the lobby of Hurston Hall, includes a history of William Saunders, the naming of the building, and the violent takedown of Reconstruction in North Carolina, followed by a brief acknowledgement of the student activism that led to the building’s renaming.
During the unveiling, a co-president of the Graduate Association for Geography Students challenged key omissions in the University’s “official” narrative on display. Most notably, it did not include the BOT’s 16-year moratorium on changing the names of further buildings. When Dr. James Leloudis, the Task Force’s lead researcher, was told the omission of the 16-year moratorium was unacceptable, his response was, “the moratorium is irrelevant.” Apparently, what is important is that the building’s name was changed.
What Dr. Leloudis fails to see is that the imposition of a moratorium in the face of an inevitable victory by students mobilizing for reparation and racial justice is a tactic by which white supremacy is re-inscribed and student movements are neutralized, now and in the future. “Don’t stop fighting,” he said. As if our co-president’s existence on campus as a Black woman is not fraught with tension.
This comment exhibits an ignorance illustrated by the display; the opinions of students who dissent have little to no academic import. “Don’t stop fighting” is the equivalent of the BOT repeatedly lauding the Real Silent Sam Coalition’s “passion” as they were presented scores of evidence — archival and experiential — of William Saunders’ white supremacist past, the sociopolitical period in which the building was named in his honor and the assaults truth-seekers received from fellow students via anonymous websites like YikYak.
There are no student members of the Task Force, particularly those directly impacted by our campus’ racist memorials and who have been involved in movements to have them removed and renamed. How can a team of “experts” present this recent struggle — mind you, we are but a year and some change removed from the day students wore nooses declaring, “This is what Saunders would do to me!”— if they were not personally involved?
The composition of this commission acknowledges a misguided belief within academia that those most equipped to gather and disseminate knowledge have Ph.D.s. It was not until scores of information had been gathered and students’ bodies — quite literally — were on the line did graduate students and faculty from geography, religious studies and communication studies join their ranks. So, we ask, who are UNC’s scholars and educators?
The Task Force made little effort to publicize the unveiling of the display.
If the intent were to interest people in the building and its history, one would think the Task Force would have taken this opportunity to promote the result of their research. However, we are well aware the BOT and Chancellor Folt did not want the unveiling to be a public event. By not announcing its completion early on, they avoided the possibility of an open challenge to their narrative before local media outlets. This exhibit is not for the “Carolina community.” It is an effort by UNC administrators to “get over” this “controversy” once and for all.
Prior to departing, Cecelia Moore, project manager for the Task Force, insinuated students should accept this token because no other university is going through such pains to address its racial history. Comments like this confirm that some educators are disconnected from a history of the present. Let it be known, UNC undertook this endeavor following an extensive public education and shaming campaign led by students.
And, might we add, after Duke University and East Carolina University took the lead in renaming buildings named after the racist North Carolina Governor Charles Brantley Aycock. Furthermore, throughout the nation, universities — no doubt prompted by civil unrest in cities and on campuses — are scrambling to add “diversity hires” to the ranks of its professoriate by employing scholars whose research is often passed over in general job hires. And, in an unprecedented move, the President of Georgetown University committed the university’s financial and academic resources to addressing racial injustice in America. Yet, somehow, UNC’s leadership is to be viewed as exemplars of restorative justice.
Willie Jamaal Wright
On behalf of the Graduate Association for Geography Students