A Year-End Wrap Up with The Real Silent Sam

This past Friday, April 24th, marked the last day of classes at UNC-Chapel Hill for 2014-2015, and while many students fulfilled the campus tradition of relaxing on the quad, others chose to reclaim and “occupy” the space as a hub for an open dialogue about the university’s racial tensions over the past year.

The event was organized by The Real Silent Sam, which is a coalition of student, faculty, and community activists working to contextualize the university’s physical landscape and institutional history.

Most notably, the coalition’s efforts to rename Saunders Hall in favor of Hurston Hall have caused a buzz of controversy throughout the community, making local, state, and national headlines.

Saunders Hall is named after William Saunders, a UNC trustee, confederate colonel in the Civil War and a chief organizer for the Ku Klux Klan.

Efforts to rename the building stretch as far back as the Civil Rights Movement, as many students throughout UNC’s history have felt uncomfortable and unsafe attending a university they feel is preserving a legacy of overt and violent racism.

The additional goal of renaming the building after writer, Zora Neale Hurston, is fairly new and has caused a great deal of friction throughout the community.

Hurston is considered to be the first African American woman to study at the university before it was integrated. Due to enrollment restrictions placed upon people of color at the time, she continued to take classes in secret.

When asked why they select Hurston to replace Saunders, Michelle Xia, an active member of The Real Silent Sam, explained that Hurston’s story is symbolic of the racial tensions that permeate the university today.

“The point of Hurston’s story is that she wasn’t authorized to be here,” she said.

“The system didn’t allow for her to be here, and yet she took classes here anyway. We think that makes her hugely inspirational and that makes her as far from Saunders as you can get.”

Recently, similar efforts to rename buildings of racial contention have been successful at Duke and East Carolina, reinvigorating activists at UNC to push harder in their renaming initiatives.

That being said, student activists like Dylan Su-Chun Mott, who is affiliated with The Real Silent Sam, felt called to action after seeing racial conflict nationwide.

“We started looking at ourselves and our university and we started realizing that Chapel Hill is no different than Ferguson, Oakland, or New York,” he said.

“The difference is that we are a small college town situated in the American South and racism is ingrained in the physical structure of our campus.”

Most recently, The Real Silent Sam has hosted a handful of rallies, online petitions, and a public online forum asking the Board of Trustees to rename Saunders.

While these efforts have mainly been student-led, campus activists have frequently turned to members of the Chapel Hill and Carrboro community for solidarity and are looking for ways to involve the community more in their efforts.

While community members may not be enrolled in or working for the university, Mott notes that the town has a great stake in the university’s political geography.

“We have to remember that this town didn’t exist before the university and that it kind of does have a dependent relationship on the university, which means that all of the university’s operations affect the town and the people who live here.”

Mott revealed that much of the lack of conversation between student activists and surrounding community members is due to the transient nature of student organizing.

“The university knows that they have us for four years and then we are gone. What we need to do is establish a way to talk to organizations in the community while building up long-term connections.”

Another obstacle to student activism around Hurston Hall has come from student, university, and community opposition.

One of the main arguments is that the Saunders name is just a name and nothing more.

“I think the fact that they are fighting to preserve the Saunders name on that building proves that there is a significance to this fight,” said Xia

“Whatever that name used to mean right now means that this school would rather keep the name of a KKK leader on its building rather than make it’s students feel safe and welcome.”

While The Real Silent Sam has received plenty of support in renaming Saunders, much of the support ends at removing the Saunders name. Efforts to change the name to Hurston have not been equally supported.

Mott feels that much of this support will come through more effective communication.

“People in this town simply need to be having conversations with one another about legacies of racism,” he said.

“Other people that may have already been doing that work need to be talking between organizations and connecting more.”

While The Real Silent Sam has not been successful in getting the Board of Trustees to join in on the conversation, Xia remains hopeful.

“As far as I’m concerned, as students, we have already renamed it,” she said.

“It’s just a matter of getting her name on that building.”




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