When exploring the University's history, certain highlights of the past leap to the forefront. William Richardson Davie pushing a bill to create the University through the N.C. General Assembly. Frank Porter Graham guiding the University through the Great Depression, consolidation and World War II. UNC-system President Bill Friday, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor William Aycock, Student Body President Paul Dickson III and others working to repeal the Speaker Ban Law of June 1963.
For the most part, these true stories are inspirational. They serve to remind modern-day University community members about the endeavors and capabilities of their predecessors. Who knows - perhaps the current administration's recent efforts to ride out storms of controversy and to preserve academic freedom will stand alongside the aforementioned examples in the minds of future generations.
But this institution's past isn't completely made up of triumphs and folk heroes - and the University must recognize those aspects of its history that aren't so shining.
In a beneficial move for those who are not particularly well-versed in the people, events and changes to the campus that came before them, the Center for the Study of the American South is sponsoring a critical look at the past. A symposium entitled "Remembering Reconstruction at Carolina: A Community Conversation" will take place in Gerrard Hall on Oct. 1 and 2.
One increasingly prominent historical issue involves the origin of the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award. By allowing for further investigation of the award's namesake, the administration has contributed to the academic, intellectual and cultural health of the University community.
Created to honor the contribution of women at UNC, the award is named after the woman who rang a bell in 1875 to celebrate the reopening of the University. The school had been closed for four years after a power struggle took place between its primarily Republican Board of Trustees, which state lawmakers recently had appointed, and opponents of the new order.
Spencer's efforts to support the University have been well publicized. But some University community members have been trying to shine a spotlight on lesser-known aspects of her life and legacy - including that she was a white supremacist who was connected to the movement that put immense pressure on the University's administration before its closing.
The conference is set to cover Spencer. But the event shouldn't be allowed to turn into an effort to rename or to place a moratorium on the Bell Award. Optimally, it will be a substantial collection of historical lessons - a means for experts and nonexperts alike to share information and to explore new perspectives.
Thankfully, the forum's moderators are not planning for the Bell Award to be the sole topic of discussion, despite the fact that its namesake has come under a growing amount of scrutiny.
The symposium will present a great opportunity to examine what the University was like and who the central figures were during the Civil War and the different phases of Reconstruction.
By investigating the racial tensions and relations that were in place during this period, the University community stands a better chance of recognizing and solving present-day problems.
"Remembering Reconstruction at Carolina" would best serve as a means for participants to learn and inform and not as a call for action. If the conference turns out to be a success, it should help to remove the shroud covering some of the University's less-flattering historical truths.
The University must lay bare its past before it truly can forge into the future.
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