In Wake of Silent Sam Scandal, UNC Remains Silent About Racist Symbols on Campus

In 1898, Charles Aycock worked with other Democratic officials to focus the party's agenda on a white supremacist philosophy. His campaign speeches called for voter suppression and violence against blacks, and he wasn’t afraid to lead by example.

After organizing a successful coup d'état of the Wilmington government, he incited a white mob of over 400 people to march on Wilmington’s black newspaper and burn it to the ground. The mob murdered more than 100 black residents. In 1903, the then-Governor Aycock of North Carolina proudly claimed the insurrection “solved the negro problem.”

Aycock was also a UNC alumnus and influential politician who improved the education system in North Carolina. In 1924, UNC-Chapel Hill named a residential building Aycock Hall to celebrate his legacy.

But does his alumnus legacy outweigh the blood on his hands today? On a campus that prides itself on its diversity-friendly reputation, the presence of Aycock Hall represents the university’s complacent attitude regarding white supremacy.

If UNC-CH wants its students of color to feel supported on campus in the aftermath of Silent Sam, the university needs to prioritize the removal of monuments dedicated to white supremacists and take their names off of campus buildings. 

Duke University, East Carolina University and UNC – Greensboro have all removed Aycock’s name from their campuses in the past five years and have created university committees to review other proposed changes.

Instead of following their example, UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees (BOT) has taken a spineless approach that is not only insulting to students of color, but fails to live up to the University’s pledge to “create and sustain the kind of community where all feel welcomed, respected and free to pursue their goals and dreams.”

The only building UNC-CH has ever renamed is Saunders Hall – now Carolina Hall – in 2015. After student protesters demanded the name be reconsidered, the BOT spent over 1,000 hours investigating Saunders Hall, as well as the other buildings on campus, to determine which prominent figures’ names should be replaced. Only Saunders Hall passed BOT approval for renaming.

In an interview, BOT Vice Chairperson Chuck Duckett said the process for reviewing included interviews and research, particularly about the qualifications that made each person eligible. When a building is named, the university lists four attributes justifying each namesake. What made William Saunders special, Duckett said, was his attribute as “head of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.”

“I thought it was a mistake by the university and by the trustees to name a building for somebody, and list as an attribute, they were head of the KKK,” Duckett said. “That was the defining moment for me.”

The BOT changed Saunders name, but it also passed a resolution that put a freeze on renaming any buildings for 16 years. The BOT said that it was designed to give them time to set up a plan to contextualize campus through online posts and historical markers. In reality, it was just an excuse to ignore the problem.

The rest of the buildings may have been named after problematic people, including William Kenan, Sr., but those namesakes had positive attributes, Duckett said - therefore, the BOT decided they were not a priority.

“They were named for their service, not their baggage,” Duckett said. “It doesn’t matter what name is on the door. What matters is who is in the door to greet you.”

But Aycock’s positive attributes do not change or justify his violent appeal to white supremacists. Three other universities decided his baggage demanded renaming their buildings, so UNC-CH’s inaction is telling – similar to their response to Silent Sam, or lack thereof.   

On Jan. 21, 2019, the Undergraduate Senate unanimously passed a resolution recommending the renaming of Aycock Hall. Undergraduate Senator Baxter Barrett explained that the Senate believed Aycock’s negative legacy outweighed his accomplishments as governor.

“Aycock has been known as the 'education governor'; certainly, the impact he had on public education in North Carolina is remarkable,” Barrett said, “But his views on education were influenced by his views on race, and his ability to even be governor was a result of severe racial violence on the day of the 1898 election.”

This is not the first time the Undergraduate Senate has spoken up about problematic symbols on campus. It also recommended the removal of Silent Sam in 2017 and denounced the 2018 plan that proposed building a hall dedicated to Silent Sam – both recommendations went ignored.

“We can't control what the BOT does, but you would hope that if they are there to serve this university, then they would care what students think,” Barrett said.

William Sturkey, a history professor at UNC, has also been active in lobbying the BOT to change building names on campus. He called for the rededication of Kenan stadium, which was announced in October 2018, but was the family’s decision.

“If you [BOT] think it's so important to have a building named after a white supremacist, I'd love for you to stand in front of black students and explain why,” he said. “Apparently it's more important to keep his name because of what he did for white people at this university than it is to reevaluate that in light of the way that he advocated racial terrorism.”

According to Duckett, the BOT is aware of the recommendations.

“We appreciate that, but I'm not worried about Aycock right now,” he said. “The resolutions are in place, and we have no intention at this point in revisiting.”

Liz Howard is a sophomore at UNC-CH and founder of the campus’ Black Arts Theatre Company. Although she doesn’t live in Aycock Hall, she is aware of the administration’s silence and what it represents for students of color.

“The administration needs to be very clear on their stance of racism and white supremacy,” she said. “Right now, it’s just too much of a grey area. They aren’t saying anything, which to me says a lot.”

For Howard, the university’s stance on diversity is hypocritical.

“This university knows that the heavy racial tension that exists on campus still affects its students of color, particularly black students,” Howard said. “We’re supposedly ‘Carolina For All,’ but have yet to address and change racist things about the university. It’s just insulting.”

Emily Freeman, a senior at UNC-CH, agrees that UNC-CH’s focus on diversity is poorly executed. 

“They spend a lot of money and resources and time dedicated to a few events,” Freeman said. “But overall, it's lacking. I think if they're really going to make a change in diversity, they should be doing these big statement things [renaming buildings], showing the university is behind it and focus on changing on a really large scale.”

Other state universities are standing examples of how UNC-CH can contextualize history while remaining inclusive and supportive of their diverse student body.

On June 23, 2014, Duke University announced the university was renaming Aycock Hall to East Hall. Afterward, the college established the Commission on Memory and History, which includes students, trustees, alumni, faculty, administrators and residents. Anyone in the community can propose the reconsideration of any building or memorial on campus.

On Feb. 20, 2015, East Carolina University renamed Aycock Hall to Heritage Hall and rededicated the building to contextualizing significant contributors of ECU. During the decision process, the college’s BOT hosted two forums that encouraged members of the community to voice their opinions – approximately 120 people participated.

On Feb. 18, 2016, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro announced its renaming of Aycock Hall to Legacy Hall. UNCG also created an ad hoc committee that allowed multiple perspectives to debate the decision.

Every college mentioned renamed the building and established a plaque recognizing Aycock’s achievements while explaining why his racist history is no longer compatible with the university’s ideals.

Replacing a name on a building does not have to erase its history. It is not enough for UNC-CH to post online blogs about the history of campus buildings’ namesakes. Instead, the university should remove Aycock’s name and install a plaque that unpacks his history, noting the good and the bad.

If UNC-CH wants to be a diversity-friendly campus, the university needs to prioritize creating a supportive space by removing monuments dedicated to white supremacists. By ending the freeze on renaming buildings, UNC can prove to the students and community that the university isn’t afraid to take a firm stance against white supremacy and protect its students of color.