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May 05, 2014 02:32 PM EDT

Duke and UNC Students Attempting to Rename Buildings Named After Slavery-Era Figures

UNC Chapel Hill
(Photo : Flickr/CC) Both UNC and Duke have buildings named after slavery-era figures.

Duke University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill are both trying to change buildings named after Klu Klux Klan leaders.

According to Inside Higher Ed, students at UNC have proposed a name change for an academic building named after a reconstruction-era KKK leader. At Duke, students want a residence hall renamed because it is named after a former state governor who was an outspoken white supremacist.

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"This is our role, to create this kind of discussion and make students look at their campus with fresh eyes so they can see things they didn't see before," Stéphanie Najjar, a senior at UNC, told Inside Higher Ed. "We want to recover from historical amnesia."

The UNC Board of Governors is considering a proposal from the student group to rename Saunders Hall. The building, which hosts religious studies and geography, was named after William Lawrence Saunders, an alumnus, former trustee and chief KKK organizer.

Duke's leaders are considering a proposal to change the name of a freshman residence hall named after Charles B. Aycock, who as governor wanted expanded public education and segregation.

"People are paying more attention to the roles universities played in honoring white supremacists," Thomas D. Russell, a law professor at University of Denver, told Inside Higher Ed. "I was a little bit dumbfounded by how legitimate suddenly this had become."

Over the last several years, southern schools have tried to sever their slavery-era connections. For example, the University of Alabama recently desegregated its Greek system after allegations were made that two black students were turned away from joining a sorority.

"That's the moment we forgot that the evil past ever happened. It's part of our past, it's our legacy," Alfred L. Brophy, a UNC law professor, told Inside Higher Ed. "The movement itself for renaming is part of the education process, so wherever we end up, it's heightened people's awareness."

Najjar said part of the proposal would require the school to hang a plaque explaining the story behind Saunders Hall.

"Our objective is to not have his name celebrated anymore," Najjar said. "But we don't want to just erase the name and forget it was called Saunders."

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