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UNC can't rename buildings with racist history. Professors are trying to change that.

UNC can't rename buildings with racist history. Professors are trying to change that.

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CHAPEL HILL — A group of UNC-Chapel Hill professors are petitioning the UNC board of trustees to allow the university to rename buildings and historical places on campus, particularly those tied to a racist or white supremacist history.

The board voted in 2015 to freeze the renaming of any historical buildings, monuments, memorials and landscapes until 2031. At the time, the board also asked the chancellor to create a task force to explore options for how to present UNC’s history in physical locations on campus and voted to rename Saunders Hall on campus to Carolina Hall.

Saunders Hall was named for William Saunders, a former member of the board and purported leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The university installed a marker describing Saunders’ contributions to UNC and to the state and explaining why his name was removed from the building. They also placed a plaque on the building that honored people who have suffered injustices.

The professors are now asking new UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to ask the board to rescind that “unwise” moratorium on the renaming of historic properties because “it now promises to vex the work and the chances of success of an important campus commission examining the university’s racial history and future.”

The professors argue that rescinding the moratorium will “remove the cloud of complexity and confusion it has placed over the campus’s consideration of important matters about race and history.”

The petition is being sent to Guskiewicz so that he can put it on the agenda for the next board meeting.

UNC pledged to change the dedication plaques at Kenan Stadium in 2018 and covered them with a temporary UNC logo last fall. The university is removing the reference to William Rand Kenan Sr., who was a leader in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898.

Other prominent buildings on UNC’s campus named after people that professors and students have identified as slave owners or white supremacists include the Carr Building, Ruffin Residence Hall and Aycock Residence Hall.

The Carr Building is named after Julian Carr, who was a supporter of the KKK and gave a racist speech at the dedication of the Confederate statue memorial that featured a statue of a solider that became known as “Silent Sam.”

Ruffin dorm was named after Thomas Ruffin, a judge on the N.C. Supreme Court who authored a decision in the law of slavery that solidified a master’s powers of discipline, according to UNC law professor Eric Muller, who helped craft the petition. Ruffin was also a slave owner and slave trader in his private life, Muller said.

Aycock Residence Hall was named after UNC alumnus and former North Carolina Gov. Charles Aycock, who promoted a white supremacy campaign that targeted and suppressed black voters. Duke University, East Carolina University and UNC Greensboro have removed the Aycock name from campus buildings.

A group of UNC history students and their professor built an online map of buildings named for individuals involved either with slavery or white supremacy at UNC. They also wrote detailed essays about the histories of the buildings and their namesakes.

The buildings they identified include Alderman Residence Hall, Avery Residence Hall, Caldwell Hall, Daniels Student Stores, Graham Residence Hall, Hamilton Hall, Mangum Residence Hall, Manly Residence Hall, Manning Hall, Mitchell Hall, Morrison Residence Hall, Murphey Hall, Parker Residence Hall, Phillips Annex, Phillips Hall, Playmakers Theatre, Spencer Residence Hall, Swain Hall, Vance Hall, Venable Hall and Winston Residence Hall.

“We should be able to make decisions about our commemorative landscape especially in cases when people 100 years ago sought to honor white supremacists and we no longer share those values,” said William Sturkey, an assistant professor of history at UNC who signed the petition.

In some cases, a person donated money to the university and wanted to have a building named after them. In other cases, university leaders shared the values of those individuals or decided they deserved the honor, Sturkey said.

“I work in a building named after a white supremacist,” Sturkey said. “The individual had nothing to do with the building itself, he was just chosen as the namesake.”

Sturkey works in Hamilton Hall, a building named after Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton, who Sturkey described as a historian who supported the Ku Klux Klan and was anti-black and anti-reconstruction.

“I understand that there are obviously people that came before me and they had very different values,” Sturkey said. “We shouldn’t always be bound to the transgressions of previous generations.”

The group submitting the petition made clear that this action doesn’t aim to immediately change the name of those buildings or other spaces on campus. Only the board has the authority to officially do that.

“This isn’t about any particular building, and this isn’t an effort to get a building renamed,” Muller said. “It’s an effort to remove an artificial constraint on a discussion about that.”

Why a discussion on renaming buildings is necessary

UNC’s newly created Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward is set to start working this week on how the university can “study and heal from our past” and promote reconciliation with regards to race and history.

The group argues that “efforts to stifle or delay discussion and debate are antithetical to the values and mission of a leading research university” and this rule prevents the commission from suggesting potential solutions.

“The commission should have the full academic and intellectual freedom to consider the full history of the university and landscape of the university,” Muller said. “And make recommendations that might have some chance of implementation before the beginning of the next decade.”

The group is concerned that this rule will cast a shadow over the debate of issues that impact the public like in the recent case of the “Silent Sam” statue.

In 2015, the General Assembly approved a law that restricted the relocation or removal of pieces of history on public property, like “Silent Sam,” which stood on UNC’s campus at McCorkle Place.

“That law and its ambiguities hamstrung university officials during the Silent Sam crisis that emerged in the fall of 2017. It also complicated and even invalidated discussions and recommendations for the monument’s disposition that the university’s senior leaders requested from faculty, staff, and students,” the petition says.

They argue that the board’s rule to freeze the renaming of buildings “threatens to darken the work” of the commission and the board should remove that shadow now.

Chancellor Guskiewicz has the authority to put this item on the agenda of the board’s next meeting for the trustees to discuss and make a decision on. The next meetings are scheduled for March 25-26.

The petition was signed by Malinda Maynor Lowery, history professor and director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South; Eric L. Muller, the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the UNC School of Law; Michelle Robinson, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of American Studies; Karla Slocum, anthropology professor, director of UNC’s Institute of African American Research and a Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy, William Sturkey, assistant professor of history, and Erika K. Wilson, who is an associate professor, Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy and director of clinical programs at the UNC School of Law.

The group created a website with the text of the petition and a place for UNC faculty, staff, postdocs and students to publicly support the petition online.

This article is published through the N.C. News Collaborative, a partnership of BH Media, Gannett and McClatchy newspapers in North Carolina that aims to better inform readers throughout the state.


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