Staring down a Confederate at Chapel Hill

Published 10:50 am Saturday, April 18, 2015

by John Railey

An old battle is raging at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that of whether to rename a campus building that bears the name of an unreconstructed Southerner, a Confederate colonel who quite likely went on to become the leader of the Klan in North Carolina.

Leave William Saunders’ name on the building. We all just might learn something from his shameful legacy.

This naming debate, of course, isn’t limited to my alma mater, nor is it limited to colleges, although campuses are certainly fecund ground for this debate. Nor is it limited to the South, although we do have a special fascination with our past.

I sympathize with the students who want Saunders’ name removed from the building that houses the departments of geography and religious studies. Some say the dorm should be renamed for Zora Neale Hurston, the great black writer who sat in on Paul Green’s playwriting seminar at Carolina just before World War II.

We live in a land swamped in controversial place names. Many of those places were named for our slaveholding first presidents, the very capital of our country being at the top of the list. Too many places are named for the killers of American Indians.

And many of our very family names are controversial. Rattle many family trees hard enough and you’ll shake loose shame, pride and the spilled, shared blood of slaves and slave-owners. Many black families who still bear the surnames of slave-owners have built their own proud traditions with those old names.

Maybe that’s the way to proceed with place names.

In the years after the Civil War, Saunders, an 1854 Carolina graduate, served as North Carolina’s secretary of state and as its treasurer, and on the Carolina board of trustees. While some doubt his Klan connection, the Carolina Alumni Review reports, the board of trustees that in 1920 approved naming the building for him noted that he was “Head of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.” The board seemed to note that proudly.

From what I’ve learned about Saunders, I don’t like him. People can talk about seeing supposed heroes in the context of their times until the rebel ghosts come home, but there were good and visionary Southerners during the Civil War who saw the Confederate cause of slavery as dead wrong and knew, even in its infancy, that the Klan was dead wrong as well. There has never been any excuse for the cowards in sheets.

My first reaction was that Saunders’ name should be torn off that building. But I kept reading about the matter. And I kept listening to my friend Chuck Duckett of Winston-Salem, a member of the Carolina board of trustees who wrote a detailed, objective study of the issue.

“One good reason to leave his name up there is to celebrate that we’ve beaten his objective of suppression of blacks, women and poor people in general,” Duckett told me.

He says one consideration the board has is transforming the first floor of Saunders Hall into a space where the full history of Col. Saunders, and race and place in general at Carolina, can be taught.

Good. We should keep driving Saunders’ shame into the light, learning from it instead of burying it.

Duckett’s fellow trustees took up his study and decided to seek public comments until April 25, then work toward having a final resolution to vote on at their meeting next month. Good idea.

As a white Southerner raised in a region smothered with the smog of white power, I know well how easy it is to never learn the full truth about supposed heroes – especially if they’re vilified. That only makes you defend them all the more.

But the past is a funny thing. You can’t run from it or fight it, not really. You can love it, but it can bewitch you.

The best you can do is to keep trying to understand the past in all its complexity. And the best way to do that is together, learning from it and each other as we face the future.

Toward that end, as new buildings go up at Chapel Hill, and across the country, for that matter, we should concentrate on naming them for real heroes and she-roes from the past who better reflect our wonderful mix.

And past being prologue, anyone advocating for a favorite of theirs to go on a new building should realize that a future generation may lambast their choice and even try to replace it. Let’s hope that generation is as forward thinking as this one has the chance to be. An ultimate in open-mindedness is to learn from terribly flawed historical figures. Their lesson: The need to constantly ask which of our actions will be perceived as evil tomorrow.

And if that makes Col. Saunders roll over in his grave, that’s all for the better.

John Railey is a native of Southampton County and the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column first appeared.