This article was originally published in Scalawag Magazine. You can read the original article here.
It was just a sign in a window. A name. Hurston.
Last August, campus police officers saw the sign and came to enforce university policy: The sign must come down, they said.
The woman faced the three officers standing in her doorway and said no. “They can send five police, or 10 or 50 and I’m not taking down my sign,” said Altha Cravey, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Symbols and names matter in the South, especially here at Saunders Hall, an academic building named after the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. From the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the burning cross, they reflect who we are and what we believe. And though this was just a sign on a university office window, it signified something more.
For Cravey, the threats of a few campus officers could not compare to the indignation of educating students inside a building that memorialized a White supremacist.
When officials at UNC-Chapel Hill voted to rename Saunders Hall, an academic building named in honor of a former Confederate soldier and leader of the state Ku Klux Klan, it represented the culmination of 16 years of agitation and struggle. Although the building was never renamed after author Zora Neale Hurston like the activists hoped, Saunders Hall was no more. The movement at UNC, which has taken various forms since it began in the late 1990s, is comprised of multiple generations of students, professors and community members.
Activists exposing the South’s history knew that racist symbols, although ubiquitous and largely overlooked, continue to find new defenders who will raise them during modern-day clashes over race, power, and privilege if unchallenged.
The recent “Kick out the KKK” campaign was led by a diverse group, many of whom are students of color, their work informed by the research and activism of a historian named Yonni Chapman. Though Chapman was a White man, educated at an elite university, the atrocities of White supremacy had visited tragedy upon his own life.
News stories barely noted Chapman’s efforts in the renaming campaign, but that would have been fine with him. He viewed his historical writing and activism as just one small part of a collective struggle for freedom that continues today.
“The struggle for historical truth is blossoming…and it will become one of the great social justice movements of our time,” Chapman said in 2005, 10 years before Saunders Hall was renamed.
The decision to remove the Grand Dragon’s name from the building comes at a time when a great social justice movement for historical truth does indeed seem to be blossoming, as people throughout the country are reevaluating symbols of the “Old South.” The movement came to the forefront in Columbia, SC, when an African American woman removed the Confederate flag from the State House in the wake of the brutal murder of nine Black Americans at the Emanuel AME Church.
Similar racial protests, energized by the Black Lives Matter movement, swept across university campuses throughout the country and around the world, forcing the institutions to confront their roles in perpetuating White supremacy. In July, a Yale University dining services worker smashed a stained glass window which showed African American slaves carrying cotton bales on their heads. At Georgetown, officials recently made the historic decision to give admissions preference to the descendants of 272 slaves that were sold to benefit the university and apologized for its role in propagating slavery. And in response to a wave of student protests, the name of a former North Carolina governor and a chief architect of a bloody White supremacy campaign were scrubbed from multiple campus buildings across the state, including Duke University.
For many of the protesters at UNC, the campaign to rename Saunders Hall meant more than just a series of words on a building. It was not about erasing history but illuminating the systemic injustice of White supremacy that continues to overshadow the university, the state and the country. “Students aren’t just fighting to rename a building,” said Omololu Babatunde, one of the student activists. “They’re really fighting for themselves and their space in the world.”
As the oldest public university in the country, UNC prides itself as being the “university of the people” and a progressive oasis within the conservative South. But, like other prominent Southern universities built with the blood and sweat of Black slaves, UNC took an active role in oppressing African Americans. These competing realities once prompted Paul Green, a playwright and a UNC alumnus, to famously say, “The university [at Chapel Hill is] like a lighthouse which throws a beam out to the far horizons of the South, yet [remains] dark at its own base.”
A close examination of the university’s landscape, believed to be the most densely memorialized piece of real estate in North Carolina, reveals a dark underbelly that perfectly encapsulates the history of the South in all of its violent contradictions. The most prominent and hotly contested of these memorials is the statue of a young Confederate soldier, nicknamed “Silent Sam”, which greets visitors as they enter campus and who stands guard over the university’s quad armed with a rifle and an expression of earnest defiance. Less conspicuous are the numerous campus buildings whose names memorialize the legacy of slave owners and openly avowed White supremacists like William L. Saunders, a celebrated university trustee who also “unleashed a campaign of terror” as the leader of the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
But the University of North Carolina owes its existence in part to Black slaves.
During the summer of 1793, Black slaves cleared brush and trees and carved out Chapel Hill’s main thoroughfare. It was slaves who laid the foundation for Old East, the nation’s first public university building, then slaves dug up the earth and fashioned half a million bricks out of North Carolina red clay. As summer melted into autumn, slaves finished laying the brick walls of the two-story structure.
October 12, however, is the date that the first “public” university continues to celebrate as its founding, the anniversary of the day that the White slave-owner William R. Davie laid the symbolic cornerstone. Of course, the slaves who actually built UNC were neither acknowledged nor allowed to enroll. It was 150 years before African-Americans could attend the university.
As Chapman wrote in his doctoral dissertation, titled Black Freedom and the University of North Carolina, 1793-1960: “The university declared its creed to be lux et libertas, ‘light and liberty,’ but its foundations were built on human bondage.”
In 1789, the General Assembly passed the bill establishing UNC as a public university but in reality, it served mainly the sons of North Carolina’s White oligarchs. Not slaves, poor White farmers or women of any status or race.
“[The university] enabled [elites] to develop relationships with other members of their class, trained them to be masters in both the public and the private sphere, strengthened their sense of duty to class, and sent them back into society to assume positions of leadership,” Chapman wrote. UNC graduates became governors, university trustees, bankers, judges and lawmakers while also expanding slavery in North Carolina from an estimated 100,572 slaves in 1790 to 331,059 in 1860.
“Slaves were critical to the functioning of the same university which denied their humanity,” Chapman wrote, not only because many of its students came from slave-owning families who paid their tuition and fees but also because slave labor allowed students and professors to devote more time to their studies, work and social lives.
After emancipation, university graduates continued to enforce White supremacy by writing laws that restricted African American political participation and breathed life into Jim Crow segregation. Others, such as William L. Saunders, went further.
Before he held positions as secretary of state and university trustee, Saunders led the KKK at the height of its activity during Reconstruction. In 1871, he became the first person to invoke the 5th Amendment before the U.S. Senate, refusing to confirm or deny his participation in the White terrorist organization. Etched upon Saunders’ tombstone are the words: “I decline to answer.”
As African Americans exerted their newly gained political power, university leaders engaged in more paternalistic forms of White supremacy on the one hand, such as advocating for limited primary education for African Americans, while at the same time maintaining the tenets of segregation at the lily White university.
“This enforcement was not done through censoring of faculty or written policies,” Chapman wrote. “It was accomplished by creating a strong institutional culture that affirmed the values of Jim Crow and discouraged deviation from these norms.”
The unspoken curriculum of White supremacy was ensured by the erection of monuments and the naming of buildings to honor defenders of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.
In 1907, the UNC president’s new home was modeled after a plantation mansion, less than a decade after the bloody coup d’etat in Wilmington quashed an interracial political movement which allied poor White farmers and African Americans against the privileged elite. Later, in 1913, a crowd of about 250 people gathered for the unveiling of Silent Sam, which honored university graduates who died in the Civil War defending the Confederacy.
When the KKK rose again during the 1920s to combat African Americans’ growing demands for equality, the UNC Board of Trustees thought it fitting to honor Saunders by naming an academic building after him. Among the reasons that the Board of Trustees voted to honor Saunders was his role as the “Head of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.”
“Saunders Hall and Silent Sam went up because White people were scared of losing their grip on power,” Sandra Osterkatz, Chapman’s daughter, said. “This White supremacist resurgence wanted to make public statements about who owned Chapel Hill. Who owned the university.”
Though no burning cross, the Confederate statue registers a deafening message to African American students and is a dog whistle for defenders of White supremacy.
“A century after the statue’s dedication, Silent Sam continues to send that message: if you don’t like White supremacy, this is not the place for you,” wrote Michael Muhammad Knight, a doctoral candidate at UNC.
In fact, in 2015, members of a group called Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, devoted to preserving Southern White heritage, converged at Silent Sam, armed with Confederate flags.
Chapman envisioned a black obelisk that would tower over Silent Sam as a reminder that the university was built by slave labor. He and many others wanted to see a monument erected in front of Davis Library to honor George Moses Horton, a poet and a slave who was locally noted for writing love poems on behalf of the university’s White male pupils—but less famous for his impassioned collection of poems about his longing for freedom, titled The Hope of Liberty, which earned the distinction of being the first book published in the South by a Black man. Chapman and others believed a plaque outside of Saunders Hall detailing the namesake’s associations with the KKK would go a long way in helping the university reckon with its racist past. Chapman knew that university buildings like Saunders Hall were more than just symbols, enshrined in brick and mortar, but he didn’t have to read about White supremacy in a book to understand its destructive nature. He faced a piece of similar terror in 1979 when White supremacists, some of them Klansmen, took the lives of several of his friends at a protest that he helped organize. Chapman and his wife, Jean, named his first daughter after Sandi Smith, who was killed in the massacre.
It was just before dawn on Oct. 6, 1999 when students scaled ladders to tape a red banner above the entrance of Saunders Hall. Across the banner were letters scrawled in Black spray-paint: “KKK.” Then the students hung nooses on tree branches and erected 77 posters representing the 77 years since the university memorialized the Grand Dragon. Murphey Hall was renamed “Hitler Hall” and Steele Building was rechristened “David Duke KKK.”
Campus police quickly cordoned off the area with yellow tape and were poised to charge vandalism when they discovered that the students responsible for the redecorating were members of the Black Student Movement and Students Seeking Historical Truth. Their performance art was a message: buildings like Saunders Hall are a crime scene. White supremacy is the crime and the victims are people of color on campus.
“There are no public hoods or sheets, there are no cross burnings, or voices shrieking White power — these things are well hidden in the walls of the university,” said Kristi Booker in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel, who organized the demonstration along with other African American students.
The students knew that racist symbols are continuously salvaged and repurposed in order to justify current claims of White supremacy. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the racist fears of some of Donald Trump’s supporters, Duke recently launched his own campaign in July for the U.S. Senate.
University workers cleaned up the banners and the nooses before classes began and though ephemeral, the protest resonated throughout campus. “I remember coming to campus and there was still some of the crime tape up,” said Altha Cravey, a geography professor who works at Saunders Hall.
“It had this tremendous shock value,” she said.
Booker met Chapman by chance during her sophomore year, who casually mentioned that Saunders Hall was named after the leader of the KKK. Incredulous, Booker spent the summer in the archives at Wilson Library uncovering the history of why the university chose to honor the Grand Dragon. The dramatic nature of the unofficial renaming ceremony reflected the feelings that students like Booker felt upon hearing about the history of their university’s memorials.
“Shock,” recalled Booker. “A lot of disappointment. Anger. I was naive to think that that wasn’t the case at Carolina but that didn’t make it acceptable.”
Booker and other students, along with Chapman, created Students Seeking Historical Truth, which called attention to the university’s hidden history. By this time, Chapman had been a fixture in UNC’s Department of History for more than a decade, where his graduate work focused on Chapel Hill’s Black freedom struggle. More than just a history project, his academic work was just one piece of an “answer to a call and the fulfillment of a pledge” to fight for racial justice.
“[Chapman] rewrote how the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill unfolded,” said James Leloudis, a UNC professor and Chapman’s graduate advisor. While previous historical accounts focused largely on White university students who took courageous stands for desegregation, Chapman’s research showed that it was African Americans, particularly Black high school students, who were at the center of the local freedom movement. Whites followed their lead.
“It’s a reminder that even very liberal Whites could look out across the landscape of the 1960s, both in that time and to some degree later and not see Black people,” remarked Leloudis. “Their story just wasn’t taken into account.”
The more he dug into UNC’s history, the more his interest grew about how the university named its buildings and the ways that it continued to affect the people who interacted within those spaces. In an interview with an African-American housekeeper who cleaned Saunders Hall, Chapman documented her visceral reaction upon learning that she had been maintaining a building dedicated to a figure of hate. From that point on, she said, the act of cleaning Saunders Hall became repugnant and made her physically ill. Chapman’s dissertation contrasted the experiences of African Americans like the housekeeper at Saunders Hall with those of Whites like the nameless “liberal professor” who taught in the same building.
“How do you feel about coming to work every day in a building named after the leader of the Ku Klux Klan?” Chapman asked the White professor. “I feel fine,” the professor responded. “That was then. That’s not my university now.”
The university’s use of slave labor was common knowledge within Chapel Hill’s African-American community.
Michelle Laws’ family exemplified other working-class African Americans in the town whose members held positions as housekeepers or service workers at the university. Others worked as nannies and maids for professors and administrators. Stories about White oppression on the nearby campus were passed down from the community elders, for whom even the simple act of graduating from the university was viewed as a continuation of the long struggle for racial equality.
“Even knowing that, there was something extra sweet about going to Carolina and being able to graduate,” she said. “It was sweet revenge to have your child go to a university that you knew not too long ago didn’t accept them even as humans.”
In 2005, university administrators finally publicly acknowledged UNC’s close association with slavery. UNC commissioned an online exhibit that examined the history of African Americans at the university, from slavery to integration, and unveiled its “Unsung Founders Memorial.” Though controversial for its small size and awkward design, it was the university’s first monument to honor the free and enslaved African Americans who built the university. A year later, Chapman’s dream of honoring the slave poet, George Moses Horton, was realized when Hinton James North Residence Hall became Horton Hall.
At the same time the university began to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans, it also undertook a reassessment of some of its trappings of White supremacy like the Bell Award, honoring Cornelia Phillips Spencer, which celebrated the achievements of women.
Spencer may well have been ahead of her time by advocating for the education of White women, but Laws, Chapman and others directed a light on her defense of the status quo when it came to matters of race. Although Spencer was no Grand Dragon and she was reflecting the most common point of view of her White peers, her form of White supremacy was no less virulent even if it was more subtle. As an apologist for the Klan, she advocated for institutional limits in the wake of the Civil War to choke African American progress.
In order to receive the award from the public university, it is implied that the recipients must have embodied some of the ideals that Spencer represented. Still, the campaign to raise awareness about the award, like efforts to rename Saunders Hall, was not about one individual. Without knowing the full history, it was easy to give an award that honored a White supremacist. But once the history was made apparent, then it came down to choices: who the public university chooses to honor and who it represents. University officials retired the award in 2004, but Spencer Hall remained. Although few people would admit to being racist, the forceful opposition to rename or reevaluate these symbols highlights the difference in how history itself is perceived and by whom.
“When you look at who controls power in the UNC System, these are the descendants of the people who benefitted from slavery,” Laws said. “It’s not a shameful history to a lot of people, mostly Southern Whites. It’s something you’re proud of.”
Although he didn’t live to see Saunders Hall renamed — Chapman succumbed to cancer in 2009 — the student movement had already taken root, building upon his struggle for historical truth. While the energy behind the movement ebbed and flowed during the next six years, as awareness about UNC’s memorialization of White supremacy grew, student and faculty outcry eventually converged in a torrent of demands which administrators could no longer avoid.
During her first year on campus, Professor Altha Cravey, like many other people on campus, was unaware of the historical significance of the name, the plaque or the man that marked the geography department and her office building. Cravey began digging and discovered the truth about her building’s namesake: William Saunders led the Ku Klux Klan.
“I was shocked,” Cravey remembered.
“I didn’t really know how to process it,” she said. “Given the nature of the Klan, it just didn’t seem right to me that the building should honor the leader of a terrorist organization that was about lynching and killing.”
Shortly after arriving at UNC, Cravey discovered Chapman’s research about the university’s memorials and their shared interests made them natural allies. In the years that followed, Chapman’s research and Cravey’s dedication to spreading the truth helped sustain and inspire waves of efforts to rename Saunders Hall.
“Yonni Chapman was one of those golden texts that you had to read,” said Omololu Babatunde, a recent graduate of UNC’s geography program. During Babatunde’s freshman year, Chapman’s name continuously popped up in conversations that she had with upperclassmen. She later joined the Real Silent Sam Coalition which took its name from the Confederate soldier, and was just one student group at the heart of a movement to rename Saunders Hall that spanned 16 years. When Babatunde finally read Chapman’s unpublished dissertation a few years later, it was like a “beacon” that helped her articulate the experiences of African-American students at UNC.
“[Trying to prove] how it feels to be on this campus where you have these glorified White supremacists all over the place — things that can’t be quantified,” Babatunde said. “Here was Yonni Chapman who was taking the same visceral feelings that I got being in these spaces and putting history to that.”
Just as Chapman hoped, Babatunde and her predecessors used his dissertation as an organizing tool to carry on the conversation about UNC’s history of honoring White supremacists.
Last year, members of UNC’s Board of Trustees watched dozens of student activists with the Real Silent Sam Coalition cram into their meeting room with posters and signs that read, “Racism Kills!”
“This might be a record for the most people we have ever had at a committee meeting,” remarked Alston Gardner, the former chair of the board’s University Affairs Committee.
The committee meeting represented a high point for the campaign to rename Saunders Hall and it was clear that everyone recognized the historical nature of the moment as conversations about “race and place” had become unavoidable.
“This is clearly a national phenomenon,” Gardner said. “It’s not just happening at Chapel Hill.”
As a person of Asian and Native American descent, Real Silent Sam member Dylan Mott said minorities like himself face a greater likelihood of getting into confrontations with other students on campus or feeling the increased pressure to perform academically. While he and many other members of Real Silent Sam felt privileged to be at a prestigious institution like UNC, the cost for attending the university can be more than just tuition.
“The cost to us to be at school can be your own health and well-being,” Mott said. “It can be your own own feelings of safety. It can be your own sense of self and the ability to learn your own history instead of someone else’s history.”
Today, as the South undergoes dramatic shifts in its demographics, shouldn’t the environment at Southern universities change along with its student body? Babatunde asked the Trustees.
“The late Yonni Chapman wrote in his dissertation that ‘diversity without justice is not enough,’” Babatunde said. “If you are asking us to be your diversity, then we are demanding justice.”
When Babatunde addressed the trustees, she was adding her own voice to the African American freedom struggle on campus that stretched back to the university’s founding. In Chapman’s writings, Babatunde found not only historical context that reinforced her feelings about being an African-American student on a campus that continued to honor White supremacists, but evidence about the antithesis of White dominance — a parallel history of struggle and agitation by African Americans and their White allies who carved a path for the young activist to follow and “challenged the university to become more honest, more inclusive, and more just.”
Just weeks before Dylan Roof shot nine people at an African-American church, the UNC Board of Trustees’ admitted at their May meeting that their predecessors were wrong to name an academic building after William Saunders. The renaming of Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall and the creation of a special task force which will curate campus monuments with historical markers are the result of a hard fought victory by the student activists who led the charge.
The concessions from the university officials, however, came with a caveat: There would be no more renaming buildings or changing memorials on campus for the next 16 years. Ironically, the length of the moratorium matched the length of time that activists spent trying to rename Saunders Hall. Labeled a “cooling off” period to allow passions to subside, the moratorium angered members of the Real Silent Sam Coalition who viewed the action as a way of extinguishing a growing movement to appraise the university’s memorials of White supremacy.
To date, although UNC administrators have acknowledged the university’s connections with slavery, a formal apology has never been issued. Upon discovering this oversight, a UNC spokesperson said he would forward the information to the chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill’s History. Nationally, efforts to remove Confederate or White supremacist symbols have slowed or been rebuffed. Princeton University officials announced that Woodrow Wilson’s name would remain attached to the school of public and international affairs, despite his racist views. Meanwhile, in an effort to preserve Southern “heritage”, elected officials in Alabama and Tennessee proposed legislation that would make it more difficult to change or remove Confederate monuments.
But it was actually North Carolina that led the charge in preserving these symbols. A month after the South Carolina killings, Governor McCrory and the General Assembly passed and signed SB 477, limiting the ability of city governments to remove or change historical monuments. While the bill’s proponents stressed that the measure passed the state Senate months before the South Carolina tragedy, it is largely viewed as a pushback against the Saunders Hall campaign and calls for the removal of Confederate monuments like UNC’s Silent Sam.
In many ways, UNC is a reflection of the “New South” which, despite recent setbacks, has removed many barriers that prevented African Americans from accessing some of their most basic rights, such as higher education and the vote. While UNC is regarded as one of the most esteemed and open-minded Southern universities, it took more than a decade and a half of hard struggle to remove the name of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon from a campus building.
But rather than paint the future as a picture of despair, Chapman drew inspiration from the past, particularly from the African-American freedom struggle, to show the boundless potential that lies ahead. His work and those of other renaming activists to expose connections with White supremacy was a testament to their belief in the UNC’s capacity to confront its past and finally fulfill its motto of being the “university of the people.”
“Who gets to occupy these corridors of thought and thinking?” Babatunde wondered. “That’s what our predecessors struggled against and what allowed me to be in that space. To be a Black woman at UNC.”