Momentum swells in NC to remove Confederate, white supremacist monuments and symbols

Momentum swells in NC to remove Confederate, white supremacist monuments and symbols

In 2015, the Board of Trustees agreed to rename Saunders Hall, named in honor of William Saunders, who was a Confederate colonel, UNC trustee and leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. Now there’s renewed pressure to rename many other buildings that honor Confederate and white supremacist historic figures. (Photo: Creative Commons/Public Domain)

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to lift its self-imposed moratorium on the renaming of buildings and historic places on campus, setting the stage to remove the names of Confederate and white supremacist historic figures from places of honor there.

The vote comes after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked weeks of international protest against police violence against Black people and systemic racism in America. The anti-racist momentum has led this week alone, to the voluntary removal of long-standing statues of white supremacists, the removal of their names from North Carolina public schools and a renewed push to remove Confederate statues from the State Capitol.

The school’s trustees adopted a ban on renaming campus buildings in 2015, during a similar upswell of national sentiment against the honoring of Confederate figures, slave owners and avowed white supremacists. Students, faculty and staff have been fighting to overturn the ban ever since.

“I’m ecstatic,” said De’Ivyion Drew, a rising junior and student activist at UNC-Chapel Hill who is a member of the Campus Safety Commission. “When I arrived at Chapel Hill in 2018 this fight was already happening — it’s something my mentors fought for. So seeing the board lift this moratorium today, I feel motivated.”

Drew met with UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz this week and said she believed “his heart was there” on lifting the ban and beginning to rename buildings.

Addressing the trustees Wednesday, Guskiewicz said rescinding the moratorium was a good first step toward building a new and more equitable university. “This puts us on a road to take meaningful actions,” Guskiewicz said. “Actions that we’ve talked about on many occasions.”

Though the trustees took no steps toward actually renaming anything on campus Wednesday, they and the chancellor made it clear the process would be quickly underway.

“Systemic racism is part of institutions across our country and we have been challenged by this here in Chapel Hill over the years,” Guskiewicz said. “But our faculty, staff and students have pushed to make UNC better for decades — as have you, members of our board. But it’s clear that we’ve move too slowly at times. We haven’t done enough to be the campus community we aspire to be at times.”

“This history of our university mirrors that of our nation,” he said. “Our campus has struggled with reconciling our history just as many other universities have. …To be the nation’s leading global public research university we need a deeper commitment to reconciling our history of racial injustice with a commitment to racial equity and inclusivity.”

William Sturkey, an assistant professor of history at UNC, said the school has certainly fallen short of its aspirations throughout its history. But the lifting of the ban, as well as a more transparent and inclusive process for renaming buildings could signal a new beginning, he said.

“We have to remember that when these buildings were named, there wasn’t great public input,” Sturkey said. “It was done by a small group, like a board of trustees. To have a community process now, where we can actually publicly discuss this, it’s going to be a better and more deliberative process than we’ve ever had before.”

Change and resistance

UNC-Chapel Hill students and community members hold signs illuminating the history of building names on campus. (Photo: Joe Killian)

As with the movement against the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam, those pushing to rename buildings on campus have long faced significant resistance from the university administration, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and some members of the UNC Board of Governors.

In 2015, they scored a qualified victory. The Board of Trustees agreed to rename Saunders Hall, named in honor of William Saunders, who was a Confederate colonel, UNC trustee and leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. 

The trustees faced mounting pressure to remove his name, but stopped short of renaming it for Black anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, as many students preferred. Instead, they opted for the more neutral “Carolina Hall,” and also imposed a 16-year moratorium on renaming campus buildings.

Since then, students, faculty and staff have maintained pressure on university leadership. They have held demonstrations and circulated petitions, as well as leading a campaign to educate people about the history of building names at the school.

UNC history students also have created an online database and map of buildings named for enslavers and white supremacists at UNC-Chapel Hill. There are more than 20, among them  Alderman, Avery, Graham, Mangum, Manly, Morrison, Parker, Spencer and Winston residence halls, and the Daniels Student Stores.

Last August, Policy Watch reported members of the UNC Board of Trustees — including Chairman Richard Stevens — were open to a discussion of ending that moratorium.

Guskiewicz has attempted to confront the issue, but has faced resistance from trustees and members of the conservative-dominated UNC Board of Governors. That resistance was still on display Wednesday. Trustee Allie Ray McCullen opposed lifting the ban, saying it was “totally ridiculous” to cave to pressure from students. “If we jump off and change things every time we’ve heard a rumor the students may demonstrate, we’re going to let the prisoners run the prison,” McCullen said.

Trustees and students were offended by the remark and McCullen, looking chastened, apologized for it after a brief recess in the meeting. Though his fellow board members accepted his apology, students said McCullen’s pattern of insulting students, staff and faculty at the school makes him unfit for his seat on the board.

“He needs to go,” De’Ivyion Drew, the UNC student activist, said. “This mindset that when students demonstrate it’s similar to prisoners running a prison, that’s not the mindset of a public servant. If you’re on a Board of Trustees you’re supposed to be leading in a way that serves the interests of the university — and students, faculty and staff make up the university.”

“Now is the time”

The trustees’ decision occurred on the heels of another statue removal. Earlier this week, the family of Josephus Daniels voluntarily removed his statue from Nash Square in downtown Raleigh.

Confederate Monument, State Capitol (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

Daniels, a former publisher of The News & Observer newspaper, was a prominent white supremacist who used the paper’s influence  to promote racist policies. Infamously, he stoked racial hatred that led to the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, in which white supremacists killed at least 60 Black Wilmington residents while overthrowing the town’s elected mixed-race government.

On the same day his 8-foot statue was removed from its place overlooking the former News & Observer building, the Wake County School Board unanimously voted to remove Daniels’ name from a Raleigh middle school.

Former Deputy Attorney General Hampton Dellinger said the anti-racist momentum has been inspiring. On Wednesday, he and a group of more than 60 prominent attorneys from across the state sent a letter to state leaders calling for the immediate the removal of Confederate monuments from civic spaces in the state, including the State Capitol.

“Confederate monuments can and must be removed immediately,” the group wrote in its letter. “Their presence in key civic spaces undermines state and national unity, denies Black citizens equal protection, and offends foundational and supreme legal rules,” they wrote. “This is not who we are. This is not how North Carolina should be seen by America and the world.  Put simply: now is the time for action. The Constitutions of North Carolina and our United States demand it.”

The Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

However, three Confederate monuments remain on State Capitol grounds:

  • the 75-foot Capitol Confederate Monument, erected in 1895, which commemorates North Carolina’s “Confederate dead,”
  • the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, erected in 1912, which commemorates the first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War combat at the Battle of Bethel on June 10, 1861, and
  • the Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, erected in 1914.

Two years ago, the State Historical Commission voted 9-2 against removing three monuments from the property. The commissioners said at the time that they felt constrained by a 2015 monuments law to keep the statues in place.

The law, one of many passed in Southern states to combat popular sentiment for their removal, sets out narrow circumstances under which such statues can be removed or relocated. Beyond requiring the statues be moved only to preserve them or if required because of construction, the law also says they must be moved to a comparable place of prominence. That would be difficult, the commission said, given that they now occupy some of the most prominent places in the State Capitol.

Gov. Roy Cooper petitioned the commission to relocate the statues to the Bentonville battlefield in Johnston County, but commission members said they didn’t believe that would satisfy the law.

Dellinger disagrees. Whether the General Assembly repeals the monument law or finds some compromise solution, he said, it is past time for the statues to come down. “People are waking up, led by a number of young protesters who have certainly been my inspiration,” Dellinger said. “One of the things they are waking up to is how ridiculous it is in 2020 to have a towering monument to slavery, to succession, to white supremacy standing over the State Capitol. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Elected officials take an oath to the state and federal constitutions, Dellinger said. The continued prominence of what he called “hate speech monuments” violate that oath and send an unmistakable white supremacist message.

“Now is the time for this,” Dellinger said. “I think the people realize that and it’s time for the government to catch up.”