Tales from Tarboro’s graveyards: lawyer interred there was first person to “take the Fifth” before Congress

William L. Saunders UNC Library

William L. Saunders
UNC Library

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William L. Saunders is buried in Tarboro in the Calvary Episcopal Churchyard. The historical marker just off Main Street at St. James, says Saunders was the editor of the Colonial Records of North Carolina and North Carolina Secretary of State. He had been a Confederate colonel. The marker does not tell that Saunders was also the Emperor of the Invisible Empire (the Ku Klux Klan) in North Carolina, a not-particularly-successful lawyer, a founder and editor of what became the Raleigh News and Observer, and a trustee of the University of North Carolina .

Saunders was not from Tarboro. His wife was. She was a Cotten. That’s how he came to be buried in Calvary Churchyard.

UNC (Chapel Hill)’s Saunders Hall was named for him in 1920, then it was renamed this year (it’s now called “Carolina Hall”) in light of Saunders’ career as a white supremacist and leader of the KKK.

A sidelight is that Saunders is believed to have been the first person ever in a Congressional hearing to refuse to answer questions asserting the privilege against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In 1877 hearings, he refused to answer questions about his KKK activities. One hundred times. He did not answer. The phrase “I decline to answer” is inscribed on his Tarboro tombstone.

Lawyer. KKK leader. Likely involved in fomenting racial violence. Buried in Tarboro.

Him refusing to testify doesn’t really surprise me.

Nobody in that graveyard is talking.

pumpkin

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