Rename Saunders Hall: An open letter to Carolina

(Editor’s note: This letter was originally sent to UNC-Chapel Hill trustee Alston Gardner in June 2014 when the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees began its investigation into a proposal to rename Saunders Hall. The board plans to hear an update and discuss the possibility of renaming or contextualizing Saunders Hall at its March 26 meeting.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

I understand that you are leading the University trustees’ investigation preceding their consideration of the proposed renaming of Saunders Hall, a proposal based on historical evidence that William L. Saunders, for whom the building is named, was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. I have followed some of the commentary on the proposal, including that of Edwin M. Yoder and Harry L. Watson.

As a University alumnus and former member of its board of trustees, I write to urge you to recommend to the trustees that they remove Saunders’s name from the building and rename it.

Despite my respect for Ed Yoder, I concur with Harry Watson’s analysis of the evidence that Saunders was a leader of the Klan. I am not persuaded by Ed Yoder’s reliance on Hamilton’s account that Saunders “never took the [Klan] oath of membership and hence was, strictly speaking, not a member.” Indeed, preceding that statement, Hamilton wrote, and Ed Yoder quoted, that Saunders was “the head of the Invisible Empire in” North Carolina and “directed it…”

For me, and I hope for you and the trustees, that leadership suffices regardless of any issue of formal oath taking. I concur with Harry Watson’s statement that “Whether he personally donned a hood or not, Saunders was an accomplice of terrorism…”

And terrorism it was, as documented by historians including Allen W. Trelease in White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (1971). There had been little Klan activity in the state prior to the 1868 elections, but after the Republican election victories Klan violence erupted in eastern counties and soon spread to central ones, including Orange and especially Alamance and Caswell, and later to western counties. The Klan committed arson, lynching, and political assassination, including one of a white Republican sheriff by ambush.

Horrific examples of violence against black Republicans include the shooting of one’s wife and her children, killing another child by kicking its brains out, and clubbing a baby to death. In Alamance, late one night Klan members dragged black Republican leader Wyatt Outlaw from his home to the Graham town square near the county courthouse and hanged him. In Caswell, Klan members had planned to hang white Republican state senator John W. Stephens in the Yanceyville square but instead trapped him in the county courthouse, cut his throat, and stabbed him in the heart.

Those horrific examples are among many others, but they alone establish that the Klan was indeed a terrorist conspiracy. With Saunders’s leadership of that terrorist conspiracy now documented, the earlier error of naming a campus building for him should be corrected and his name removed from the building.

Should you and the trustees agree and so act, I hope that I and others will have an opportunity to recommend others for your consideration in renaming the building.



Arch T. Allen III

Allen signature

UNC BS ’62, JD ‘65

Arch T. Allen is chairman of the board of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.