School's policy to scrub buildings of racist links

— The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees on Thursday approved a policy for removing the names of people who backed slavery or promoted segregation from buildings or public spaces on campus.

The move comes a month after the board decided to lift a moratorium on renaming buildings amid the national debate over systemic racism and police and public accountability.

“In this moment in the history of our university, our state and our nation, I believe that we are called to be a light that shines in the dark corners in which racism has festered for far too long,” said Vice Chairman Gene Davis, who helped draft the policy, “to not simply make a change but to establish a process for change … that provides opportunities for not just changed names but changed hearts.”

Trustee John Preyer was the lone vote against adopting the policy, saying that the university should be focusing its attention on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

“At a time when UNC is at risk of an unprecedented financial shortfall, the likes of which we really don’t even know, and at a time when the traditional model of higher education is at a critical juncture, made even more so over the past four months, and at a time when the health and safety of students and UNC employees is still being figured out, I don’t think the board should be spending time crafting a policy dealing with the names of buildings,” Preyer said in an email to WRAL News.

In 2015, the Board of Trustees voted to rename Saunders Hall, which had been named in 1992 for William Lawrence Saunders, as Carolina Hall. Saunders was an alumnus who served as a Confederate colonel in the Civil War and also founded the Ku Klux Klan in the state, and the trustees called it “an error” that he was considered for the honor of having his name on a campus building.

After Saunders Hall was renamed, a 16-year moratorium was put in place. But students and faculty continued to press for renaming other buildings.

Under the new policy, people who want to remove a name need to submit a written request to the chancellor spelling out why, including historical details about the person’s conduct and how association with the person damages the university’s integrity, values and mission. A special committee would then investigate the claims and forward a final report to the chancellor, who would decide whether to send it on to the Board of Trustees for action.

The main debate over the policy involved a provision for providing context for why a name was removed from a building, including a plaque inside a building that included the previous name.

“I’m concerned that keeping the haze of something that was determined to be repulsive too much in that space can be a form of racism,” Trustee Kelly Hopkins said.

“I don’t want to lose the history,” said Trustee Chuck Duckett, who noted a display now inside the former Saunders Hall providing information about the Jim Crow era.

“I think we want contextualization so that we can educate,” Davis added.

The language about a plaque was dropped before the final policy was approved.

The university’s Commission on History, Race & A Way Forward has already recommended to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz that four buildings be renamed:

  • Daniels Building, which is named after former newspaper publisher and lifelong white supremacist Josephus Daniels
  • Carr Building, which is named for Ku Klux Klan supporter Julian Carr. He gave a racist speech during the dedication of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on campus, which protesters pulled down two years ago.
  • Aycock and Ruffin residence halls, which are named after former North Carolina Gov. Charles Aycock and Thomas Ruffin Sr. and Thomas Ruffin Jr. Aycock led a white supremacy campaign that suppressed black voters, while the elder Ruffin was a chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court who enslaved more than 100 people.

A statue of Ruffin Sr. was recently removed from the state Court of Appeals building in Raleigh.

Guskiewicz said he plans to have a committee review those requests next week so that he can get a report back before the Board of Trustees by the end of the month in a possible specially called meeting.

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