UNC-Chapel Hill lifts moratorium on renaming buildings, promises to face campus’ racial history

 

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

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 move comes after years of student and faculty efforts to overturn the renaming ban, which was put in place in 2015 as national sentiment rose against the honoring of Confederate figures, slave owners and avowed white supremacists. Though students, faculty and staff at the school have pushed for decades to rename some of its buildings, this week’s vote comes in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the resulting international protests against police violence against Black people and racial disparities in the U.S.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz addressed Wednesday’s meeting of the school’s board of trustees, saying the lifting of the moratorium is just one part of a commitment to greater racial equity at the school.

“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.”

Though no steps toward actually renaming anything on campus were discussed Wednesday, board members and the chancellor made it clear they mean to get that process under way.

“This puts us on a road to take meaningful actions,” Guskiewicz said of lifting the ban. “Actions that we’ve talked about on many occasions.”

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

But in 2015, they scored a qualified victory. The Board of Trustees agreed to rename Saunders Hall. The building was named for William Saunders – 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 buildings on campus.

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.

Stevens likened his shifting perspective on UNC’s building names to his views on the Silent Sam Confederate monument, which was toppled by protesters.

“I’ve had the benefit of more frequent discussions with students and with faculty of color,” Stevens said. “I understand much better now their opposition to Silent Sam and now my position is I don’t think it should come back to McCorkle Place.”

In February, faculty delivered a petition to administration on the issue.

On Wednesday, Guskiewicz promised that this step will the first in an ongoing effort to face UNC-Chapel Hill’s history and build a more inclusive future.

“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,” Guskiewicz said.

Look for further coverage of this issue — at UNC Chapel Hill and beyond — tomorrow at NC Policy Watch.

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