My open letter to the Board of Trustees on renaming Saunders Hall

Posted by on Apr 23, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees “has asked the campus community to submit thoughts and ideas about a request to rename Saunders Hall and the larger question of fully understanding the University’s 221-year-old history.”


My response was submitted via and is also posted here as an open letter:


April 23, 2015


To the Board of Trustees:


This open letter is in response to your request for our thoughts and ideas concerning the renaming of Saunders Hall.  I am an Associate Professor of Geography who has worked in Saunders Hall for nearly fifteen years –  inhabiting #306 – teaching, advising, doing research and writing in the areas of cultural, historical, and political geography, and currently directing the Geography Department’s graduate program.

To begin, I will say that I love the old building in some ways, despite its, I believe, hateful name, because I love my job, and Saunders Hall has provided the setting for me to devote my career to the teaching and study of a discipline which increasingly values diversity, tolerance, peace, and justice in the study of landscapes, social spaces, and environments.  It is also a lovely building (hence I am not sure that I like the idea of it being turned into a museum, per the comments of Professor Muller at your recent public forum!).  But it is an unpleasant irony for Geography faculty and students learning to understand how cultural landscapes and built environments can serve to reflect and to shape our identities and social relations in powerful ways, such as through seemingly innocuous practices of naming places, to have to continue to work in a building named after this reprehensible figure from the state’s history, who the Board has acknowledged as reputably identified as head of the KKK in North Carolina during the brutal period when Reconstruction was effectively undermined in the state.  Though we may inhabit the same buildings, however, the University has obviously changed a great deal in the 90-plus years since Saunders Hall was commemorated, and who could doubt that the movement toward inclusion, and away from racism, has been for the better?  I urge the Board to take back this mislaid honor and rename Saunders Hall.  Although I do think that Hurston Hall is a very good suggestion, I do not think the new name is necessarily the issue at stake now, the old one is.  Allow me to say a few more words about why I think renaming Saunders is important, based on my experience on campus as well as my own modest research in the historical geography of reconstruction and post-conflict settings, including US Southern Reconstruction.

I am heartened by the efforts of student activists from the Real Silent Sam Coalition (RSS), graduate students from Geography and Religious Studies, and others who have been at pains to compel public debate over the legacy of institutional racism in the campus landscape.  For many of us who had for long been disturbed or offended by the name Saunders and what it signifies but, somehow, believed that a change at the University was impossible, these students have already taught a valuable lesson through their hard work and diligence in bringing attention to these issues.  They have also taught us by sharing the findings of their research in effective and sometimes challenging ways.  For example, the RSS’s moving, staged reading of Julian Carr’s infamous 1913 speech at the dedication of the Silent Sam monument, which celebrated the horsewhipping of a Black woman in Chapel Hill  beyond the reach of Union Army troops stationed on campus during the Reconstruction period, illustrated how the politics of memorializing the campus landscape during the 1910s was closely bound up in the racial politics of Reconstruction during the 1860s and 1870s, cementing particular figures and representations of history in the landscape at a moment when the federal state’s failure to protect the civil and voting rights of Black citizens in North Carolina, or even to protect these citizens from the organized terror of the KKK, was complete.  Similarly, in turning up University documents in connection with the naming of Saunders Hall in 1920, the group pointed to a key finding that must give us pause: that Saunders’ position as “Head of the Ku Klux Klan of North Carolina” was acknowledged in University proceedings as one of his positive contributions, listed behind only his status as a Confederate officer, and above his positions as Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Compiler and Editor of the Colonial Records of North Carolina.  While the latter position has been the one most frequently identified by the University in recent years as the main reason for naming Saunders Hall, which then housed the History Department, it is evident that much more was in play in naming the Building after Saunders as “one of the master minds of North Carolina,” amounting to a kind of victory lap for supporters of the KKK in the state and the University.  Hence, in addition to renaming the building, I ask the board to acknowledge on behalf of the University that this mislaid honor was not simply a mistake to be corrected through the appearance of “new” evidence about Saunders but rather reflects an intentional choice by administrators of the time (including, as I understand it, the Board of Trustees).  But while the choice to name a building after William Saunders tells us something about who we were at UNC in the 1920s, the renaming of Saunders Hall today does offer the chance – in my opinion,  the imperative –  to say who we are not, and this is also an opportunity to say who we are now or who we might want to be.


My own research has included a study of the persistence of violence and warfare in post-conflict settings, of which the US Southern Reconstruction forms a paradigmatic example of the false binary between war and peace that is evident in modern notions of post-conflict reconstruction (Kirsch and Flint, Reconstructing Conflict, 2011, UK: Ashgate).  In this capacity it is worth reiterating what can be understood as settled historical fact (for example, see classic texts such as Foner’s Reconstruction, and Trelease’s White Terror): that during Reconstruction in particular, the Klan-organized terror activities of night raids, beatings, and lynching were normalized as legitimate, more or less “everyday” political tactics, with the Klan identified by some authors as something of a military or paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party.  In this context, it is indeed unthinkable that Saunders would hold prominent positions of Secretary of State and Treasurer in the state without being complicit in the violence that closely underwrote this power structure.


I would also like to point out  that, as a director of graduate studies attempting to recruit top graduate students to our program from across the country, the name of the building is truly an embarrassment, as the issue has become well known in the discipline and of course in the media, though I could not say whether or not this has hampered our abilities to recruit top students.  Conversely, though, my sense is that renaming Saunders now will be viewed quite positively.  Digging our heels in for the purpose of keeping Saunders’ name on the building will not.  Those who argue against change for the sake of preserving tradition are saving the wrong traditions.  Those who argue against change because they do not want to erase the history of institutional racism in the landscape (a history which can be preserved via plaque or exhibit) underestimate the power of landscape symbolism to make an impression on incoming students, and the particular insensitivity to Black students of honoring a KKK leader on a prominent Polk Place building name.  Names matter.  I believe that the Board of Trustees is approaching this issue earnestly and wants to do the right thing.  I believe it will.


Pardon the perhaps overly long message.  Please let me know if there are any questions.



Scott Kirsch

Associate Professor

Director of Graduate Studies

Department of Geography