Saunders Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Courtesy of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Saunders Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
(Courtesy of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

The University of North Carolina will rename a building on campus that has long honored a former trustee who was a Ku Klux Klan leader, school officials announced Thursday.

Similar debates about buildings are playing out at other colleges, as leaders and activists argue about the legacy of slavery and racism and how to balance historic truth with efforts to make all feel welcome on campus. Leaders at Clemson recently decided there were  more meaningful, less symbolic changes they could make than renaming a building, and cited the importance of understanding and learning from history.  Leaders at Brown launched a series of initiatives teaching about the university’s long-ago ties to slavery.

[University of Maryland student government endorses call to rename Byrd stadium, citing racist legacy.]

At UNC, some students had called for Saunders Hall to be renamed, with protesters wearing nooses around their necks and signs that read, “THIS is what SAUNDERS would do to ME.” Many had asked that the building honor, instead, the first black student at Carolina before integration, the famous writer Zora Neale Hurston.

[Students demand  new name for building honoring KKK leader.]

The building was named in 1920, after alumnus William L. Saunders, citing his contribution to the history of North Carolina by compiling and editing Colonial records that formed the foundation of the state’s archives, his role as N.C. secretary of state — and his leadership of the KKK.

“The KKK was a violent, terrorist organization that was illegal in the United States during Saunders’  era,” the university noted in a statement about the change. “He was compelled to appear before a Congressional hearing in 1871 to answer for his reputed involvement in the KKK, but he refused to testify, pleading his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.”

Citing his KKK role was a mistake, trustees concluded. The school’s policy allows names to be revoked if it would “compromise the public trust, dishonor the University’s standards, or otherwise be contrary to the best interests of the University.”

After a year of discussions on campus which included historians, students, faculty and others, trustees voted to make three changes to help the telling of the school’s 221-year history: Stop renaming buildings for 16 years, begin new curatorial and educational efforts, and rename Saunders Hall.

The trustees did not choose the student activists’ recommendation of Hurston Hall.

The building will now be known as Carolina Hall, they announced, with a plaque that reads, “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Saunders Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Courtesy of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Saunders Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
(Courtesy of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

“Today’s decisions make an unequivocal statement about Carolina’s values and the importance of continuing to cultivate an inclusive and positive educational atmosphere for our campus,” Lowry Caudill, chair of the Board of Trustees, said in a statement. “We want to prepare our students to be effective leaders with an understanding of history, but also with an eye to the future. These efforts to curate the campus and teach the past with greater context will present future generations with a more accurate, complete and accessible understanding of Carolina’s history.”

The decision hardly silenced the debate: