I’ve spent months watching many friends, community members and inspirational student activists organize a movement to surmount institutionalized racism at our university by renaming a historical building—currently named after a chief Ku Klux Klan organizer—in honor of legendary folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston. But instead of jumping at this opportunity, the UNC Board of Trustees has decided to give the building the neutral name of “Carolina Hall.”
They said the decision was part of a “comprehensive approach” to change on campus, but it reads more like a watered-down attempt at reconciliation than true understanding.
Over the past year, UNC student organization The Real Silent Sam Coalition (RSSC) began a movement calling on the board to #KickOutTheKKK by replacing the name “Saunders” on a historical building with the name “Hurston.” (Hurston unofficially attended playwriting classes at UNC before desegregation.) According to UNC’s website, the history department building was in 1922 given the name Saunders Hall to commemorate William L. Saunders and “recognize his work as a compiler of historical documents”—but he was also a chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in the late 1800s.
So, yes, we can be glad that the board decided to remove Saunders’ name from the building, though frankly that should have been done years ago. But as the RSSC sees it, replacing “Saunders” with “Hurston” was an opportunity to talk back to the history of white male supremacy that excluded women of color like Hurston from institutional acknowledgement—an opportunity the university missed.
UNC students and the RSSC have responded with vehement criticism against the name “Carolina Hall.” In a Facebook post, RSSC called the new name “a sugar-coating of Saunders Hall updated for the aesthetics of 21st-century white supremacy: color blindness and multicultural diversity. This isn’t justice, it’s pageantry.”
As if rubbing salt in the wound, the board’s “comprehensive solution” also approved a 16-year freeze on the renaming of historical buildings on the UNC campus—a message that seems to spell disapproval of the efforts of students and community members who organized in support of Hurston Hall.
So I’m left with a feeling of so close, yet so far. Upon returning to campus, I hope that this decision will spark further initiatives to educate and curate visibility of the university’s racialized history, as the board has implied, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
Photo of Zora Neale Hurston via Wikimedia Commons