Tuesdays and Thursdays, I teach a class as a TA in Carolina Hall, formerly named Saunders Hall — after William L. Saunders, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
The fact that the name was changed in 2015 is something current students and I would not necessarily take note of, as it was before our time at the University.
The decision to rename it came in response to Saunders' role as a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and was conceived as a package deal that froze renaming around campus for 16 years. Last year, amid the national conversation on the removal of Confederate monuments, this moratorium was lifted. Although this decision has caused some renaming to occur across campus, it should continue to be a top priority of the University.
The University is no stranger to reckoning with our country’s past. The Silent Sam controversy acutely revealed the discomfort around remembering the Civil War and slavery on our very own campus. Everything that’s happened since the statue’s removal and the renaming of Carolina Hall demonstrates we’ve only just begun the process of understanding the history surrounding us every day.
Sarah Carrier graduated from UNC in 2001 and currently works as the North Carolina research and instruction librarian at Wilson Library. She believes that these buildings should be thought of as monuments. Carrier has been working at Wilson since 2015 and has studied extensively the parts of the University’s history that these building names represent.
“If you’re naming a building after a Confederate officer, you’re telling us what you value,” Carrier said. “You’re embedding those values into our landscape.”
Reconceptualizing the buildings we teach and take daily classes in as monuments, the University amplifies the importance of making sure they are named in honor of people our community of Tar Heels can be proud of.
This is not to say, however, the University hasn’t taken the initiative to make changes.
With the decision to lift the moratorium came a new naming policy. While it would seem these new rules around naming and renaming on campus show a willingness to address the presence of the University’s racist past, they have also bureaucratized the process, making the ability to make changes incredibly slow.
The University is following the steps of schools like the University of Virginia, my alma mater, which has also been in the public eye for its historical ties to slavery. The summer before my senior year, UVa. made national news when white nationalists marched on our grounds for the Unite the Right Rally. To see the university used as a symbol of such violent ideologies was surreal, but the landscape was connected to the same history of violence that informed the rally attendees. Since that incident in 2018, UVa. has renamed several buildings — including one after civil rights leader and former professor Julian Bond.
UNC also has a history of white supremacists coming to campus. In 2019, a Confederate group walked onto campus carrying guns and weapons and faced no arrests. These groups represent a type of ideology that is implicit in our campus landscape through these building names. And this kind of flagrant display of white supremacy require us to be vigilant in ensuring that we erase those elements from campus.
“The University is following its naming process,” UNC Media Relations told the Daily Tar Heel in an email. “Once the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee for Naming University Facilities and Units has made a recommendation to the Chancellor, the Chancellor may then move the request to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. A Board of Trustees vote is the final decision.”
The process for renaming and erasing a name from the landscape is a bit complicated in the fine print. The new guidelines, approved in July, require individuals to submit written requests with “scholarly historical evidence” on why the honoree should be removed. The chancellor has full discretion to reject these proposals or agree and turn in a report to the Board of Trustees who has the final vote on renaming.
Further, the evaluation for the removal of a name has two caveats.
- Requests are “weaker” if the individual behavior was “conventional” to the time period and if “other aspects of the namesake’s life and work are especially noteworthy to the University or the greater community.”
- Even though an individual may have behaved in ways that were offensive, a request to remove them is weaker if “there is also evidence of significant level of evolution or moderation of the namesake’s behavior and/or views.”
These exceptions diminish the potentially harmful and racist actions of people as long as everyone else at the time was doing it, and that they would forgive the same harmful actions if individuals later decided to change their behavior.
It’s no wonder the process of renaming seems so sluggish, given the administrative dance individuals must perform to make requests and the final escape hatch that the chancellor and Board of Trustees have made for themselves.
When the Ad Hoc Committee on Honorific Naming Policy was created, our chancellor encouraged them to make decisions that reflected the University’s values. Part of those values should not be making changes when public pressure demands it and then letting the tasks fall on a backlog. They shouldn’t be removing the most inflammatory individuals to pacify those invested in seeing changes made while excusing acts of violence and racism that are “not as bad.”
There is little to be done to change the history of our University and the actions of those we once chose to honor, but there should be swifter steps in taking a close look across our landscape and being sure we can fully be proud of what we see.
The University needs to prioritize making these decisions now rather than waiting for public pressure and layering subsequent action with polished platitudes and red tape that would prevent this generation of Tar Heels from experiencing a campus free from legacies of racism and hate.
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