Reassessing honors of the past

Jun. 18, 2014 @ 06:49 PM

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet."

-- Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”


What indeed is in a name? Often, controversy.

Just ask, among others, Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or the owners of the Washington Redskins.  All – and many other sports teams and institutions –wrestle with names that once seemed commendable but as times change have become embarrassing or offensive.

Honors bestowed in one era can become dishonorable through the lens of another.

Duke resolved one such controversy this week relatively soon after it first arose. Six months ago, amid a campus discussion that had sprung up, Duke Student Government passed a resolution calling on the university to strip former governor Charles B. Aycock’s name from an East Campus dorm.

The dorm had been named for Aycock in 1914, a decade after his term ended and when what is now Duke was still Trinity College. It must have seemed an easy choice. As the website of the Aycock birthplace historic site notes, he “dedicated himself to improving public education in North Carolina.”

He also dedicated himself to ensuring white supremacy and segregation in North Carolina. His election followed a furious campaign by the state’s white political leadership to reverse gains in black political participation under the previous Populist-Republican ‘fusionist” administration.

In announcing Duke’s decision President Richard Brodhead acknowledged both aspects of Aycock’s reputation.
“While Gov. Aycock made notable contributions to public education in North Carolina, his legacy is inextricably associated with the disenfranchisement of black voters…”

Perhaps Duke’s move will encourage UNC resolve the controversy over Saunders Hall, an academic building named for William Lawrence Saunders. Saunders was a principal organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in the area. It is a bit more complicated for UNC, because Saunders was an alumnus and one-time trustee of the university. Aycock had no ties to Duke as student, leader or benefactor.

UNC already has discontinued an award named to honor a Civil War-era woman who was remembered for ringing a bell to mark the university’s re-opening following Reconstruction but also argued to shut it rather than educate former slaves. “Silent Sam,” the Confederate-soldier monument, still stands guard on campus, but nearby the school has erected a “public memorial to the unheralded African American builders and servants of the university.”

Here in a region where most white citizens – and thus most of those with power – revered the memory of the “Lost Cause” for generations, such discordant legacies are profuse.  Those Confederate monuments dot many courthouse lawns, most notable citizens of the late 19th century whose names adorn institutions or street signs were ardent segregationists, and while it is so discreet as to be almost unnoticed a plaque just off the UNC campus notes that Franklin Street is part of the “Jefferson Davis Highway.”

Confronting that past and dealing properly with it is complicated, but well worth the conversations that surround it.