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Silent Sam and Carolina Hall: The Board of Trustee's quest for context

saunders carolina hall
A UNC worker takes down Saunders' name from Carolina Hall in 2015.

In 2015, the UNC Board of Trustees rolled out a series of resolutions outlining their stance on contextualization. They were the documents used to facilitate the processes of changing Saunders Hall into Carolina Hall. In September, Trustee Chuck Duckett opened a University Affairs Committee meeting by reaffirming the prominent role that the resolutions will play in the BOT's handling of Silent Sam.

In the 2015 resolutions, the BOT requested that Chancellor Carol Folt create a task force whose job would be to conduct a wide-scale audit of campus speech — names of buildings, monuments and other markers — and provide advice on how to best approach contextualizing McCorkle Place. 

Jim Leloudis, the co-chairperson of the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History, said the product of his group’s work can be seen in the lobby of Carolina Hall — an immersive educational display. 

“We took the opportunity to teach a much larger story of race and democracy,” Leloudis said. “From the era of Reconstruction, when Saunders was active in restoring white rule over former slaves and their descendants, to the 1920s, when the Board of Trustees called out his leadership of the Klan as a reason to memorialize him.”

Beyond Carolina Hall, Leloudis’ task force was told to “create historical markers for McCorkle Place and Saunders Hall that provide an accurate, accessible and complete history of each place.” In November of 2015, the task force told the BOT that contextualization at McCorkle Place could include a mix of virtual and physical elements, and the structure would be informed by the Carolina Hall exhibit process. 

Within those 2015 resolutions, the BOT outlawed the renaming of UNC memorials, markers or monuments for the next 16 years — removing the option for a future situation involving the University's past to be mitigated by the changing of a name, as was done with Saunders Hall. 

The freeze on renaming UNC memorials, markers or monuments makes the task force’s work a critical element of the BOT’s big-picture plan for telling the full history of the University, which they've said will require time to take effect.

“We were very close to being able to put contextualization for all the monuments in McCorkle Place up,” said Chancellor Folt in a September press conference after Silent Sam's removal. “And our plan is to go forward with the rest of the contextualization while we still think about the Confederate monument separately.”

Leloudis said McCorkle Place contextualization will include markers that “will introduce the story of indigenous peoples who once inhabited the land on which the University was built,” as well as provide repair and renovation work to the Unsung Founders Memorial. 

“We will likely need to update the marker for the Confederate monument once the statue’s final disposition is settled,” Leloudis said. 

The pedestal, which cannot be removed according to a 2015 North Carolina law, is a historical relic of its own that could require contextual revision, independent of the statue’s eventual placement. 

“We clearly have to deal with both,” Folt said, speaking about the statue and its base. “I never anticipated the situation we are in.” 

Although the statue’s fall was unexpected, in the September press conference, Folt said the statue's fall gives the University options to consider. 

“I’m an experimentalist,” Folt said. “So I love the fact that we are experimenting with doing things fast.”

Trustee Kelly Hopkins said she thinks every situation at UNC is unique, and all options are being considered. 

“When you have a situation that comes up, you have to come together,” she said. “You can’t let things be divisive. Then that's when problems come into play.”

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