Thursday, May 28, 2015

Changing names can't change history

I know little about William Lawrence Saunders, for whom Saunders Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill is named, but I am concerned about the movement to remove his name from a campus building that has borne that name for some 70 years. It is alleged that Saunders was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, but no primary documents confirm that allegation. I can accept that allegation as truthful and still doubt the wisdom of removing his name.

Being a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 2015 is a clearly despicable act, one that is roundly condemned in today's society. But being a member of the KKK was not, in Saunders' time, a reviled act. The KKK is remembered as a violent terror organization, and members unquestionably used terrorist tactics to pursue their interests, but it also represented a political point of view, which aimed to return political power to the white gentry that controlled the state before the Civil War. The struggle for political power pitched the former aristocracy against newly franchised blacks and poor whites. The bitter taste of an occupying army during Reconstruction also fueled resentment against the change in political winds. So to 19th century minds, the relationship between these competing groups might be described by a 21st century term: "It's complicated."

The 19th century context of Saunders' life should caution today's North Carolinians against being too quick to judge. Saunders is credited with performing essential work in collecting and cataloging colonial records of the state. But that's not the main reason for not removing his name from a building.

The main reason is that historical characters should not be judged by contemporary standards. By today's standards, every 19th century American was racist is some ways. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, approved of the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa. Most wealthy men in the South (and many in the North) owned slaves. The notion of racial superiority was widespread, if not universal among Americans and Europeans of the time.

And let's not even get into the rampant sexism of the 19th century.

Charles B. Aycock, once lauded as North Carolina's Education Governor, has been shamed by having his name removed from schools and college buildings because Aycock helped bring about the disenfranchisement of black voters and the return of Democratic (i.e., white) rule. Despite the embarrassment about Aycock's 19th century beliefs, his positive impact on North Carolina's public schools is unquestionable. To make him a historical non-person is shameful.

Where might this sanitizing of history and the triumph of our 21st century sensibilities lead? We should certainly change the names of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Both were slave owners. Also change the name of Washington, D.C., Washington, N.C., and the state of Washington.

Instead, let's stop and take a breath. Historical characters cannot live up to today's standards because those standards did not exist in their day. Let them live in their historical context because they cannot live up to our own. 

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