There is a 12 percent chance that any building you step into at UNC-Chapel Hill is named for a slave owner, member of the Ku Klux Klan, or documented white supremacist.
At least 30 of the 250 “major” campus buildings are tainted by their racist namesakes, including Lenoir Dining Hall, Kenan Football Stadium, and Daniels Student Stores. Your dorm could be named after one. Your department’s building could be named after one. And this doesn’t include monuments and markers.
Renaming the university’s buildings has been an uphill battle. In the same 2015 meeting to rename Saunders Hall (the surname of a 19th-century KKK leader), the Board of Trustees placed a 16-year moratorium on the renaming of campus buildings.
The moratorium came to an end in a Wednesday special session by the UNC Board of Trustees in an 11-2 vote. The vote was prompted by a petition to lift the moratorium started by three UNC-CH alumni. The petition garnered over 9,000 signatures in two days.
“The names of our buildings, like any statue on our campus, should represent who we are and who we want to be,” the petition states. Its creators Rashaad Galloway, Taryn Revoir, and Shelby Voss, included a list of influential Black people whose names could serve as replacements, including Howard Lee, Karen Parker, and Perry Hall.
Board member Allie Ray McCullen, who voted against ending the moratorium, received backlash from listeners for saying that making this decision would be letting “the prisoners run the prison.” He later apologized for this choice of words.
Other board members contested remarks about “changing history” if the buildings were eventually renamed.
“Whether you’re conservative or independent or wherever you are, that’s not what this is about,” said trustee Chuck Duckett. “This is about leading. This is about being a great institution, and it’s about doing the right thing.”
This was the second petition in 2020 to lift the moratorium—in February, six professors petitioned the administration to lift the ban. The demands were signed by students, alumni, and other faculty.
It also comes at a time where the university has been called out for performative activism: putting “#BlackLivesMatter” on the Kenan Stadium scoreboard when no students were on campus, participating in “#blackouttuesday” on their social media channels despite Black organizers denouncing the trend, and not rescinding the admission of a student whose racist remarks to a high school classmate circulated social media.
“We’re in the middle of a national uprising over the Black Lives Matter movement, and they see that students are not tolerating a lack of action from the university, from the Board of Trustees, from the Board of Governors, whoever is in power,” says Tamiya Troy, president of UNC’s Black Student Movement and the senior class vice president. “While I’d like to say ‘Okay y’all, we got it done, good job,’ it’s also like, ‘What’s their motive?’”
We credit the brilliant Black student leaders of Students Seeking Historical Truth (2000s) and The Real Silent Sam Coalition (2000s-2010s) whose labor to address racist namesakes on our campus made today’s moratorium lift possible https://t.co/7MxN9tFHSq
— #StrikeDownSam (@strikedownsam) June 17, 2020
The 2015 renaming of Saunders Hall and the subsequent ban on name changes followed a year of activism from the Real Silent Sam Coalition. The decades before that included a foodworkers‘ strike, a housekeepers’ strike, and tireless organizing from the Black Student Movement and Black Congress.
The 2015 meeting left a bad aftertaste: the moratorium was created, and requests to rename the building after author and unofficial student Zora Neale Hurston were ignored. Instead, the BOT opted for the politically neutral (and incredibly vanilla) “Carolina Hall.”
The moratorium had been circumvented since its 2015 inception. In 2017, Rams Head Dining Hall was renamed to Chase Hall at Rams Head Plaza—the building itself was always called Chase Hall, but the dining area and colloquial name of the building was Rams Head. In 2018, Carol Folt “rededicated” Kenan Stadium from the Kenan that commanded a white supremacist uprising and killed at least 25 Black people in the Wilmington Massacre. It was then decided to be named after his son, William Randall Kenan, Jr., who donated the money for the building.
Though renaming buildings can now be considered, some worry that the Board of Trustees will continue to drag its feet.
“This is a HUGE first step but we CANNOT STOP HERE,” Galloway tweeted. “Please continue to sign my petition! We must still have Kenan stadium re-contextualized. We must also still get all 40+ buildings, monuments, and landmarks renamed!”
Troy also reminded allies to consider the impact of money on the school’s decision-making, and for white students and alumni to use their voices and donations to make a change.
“The burden can’t lie on Black students to be the ones to start the petitions, and constantly circulating the information, and sending the emails to everyone, scheduling meetings, and trying to get this out,” Troy says. “It also needs to be white people who have these connections and are being listened to.”
You can learn more about the 30 known UNC buildings named after white supremacists, as well as the five named after Black people, here.
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