Those familiar with University lore know Cornelia Phillips Spencer best as the woman who rang the bell.
Spencer long has been renowned for grabbing the rope of the campus belfry on March 20, 1875, upon receiving a long-awaited telegram from Raleigh informing her that UNC was to reopen after running out of funds and students in 1871.
Generations after her death, heated debate continues on how she should be remembered.
Last month, Chancellor James Moeser decided to retire the 11-year-old Bell Award that had been given in Spencer’s honor to women who had significantly contributed to the University.
This action followed a two-year campaign, led by history graduate student Yonni Chapman, which sought to publicize Spencer’s support of white supremacy. Some of her writings supported the Ku Klux Klan and railed against those who did not harbor racial prejudice.
“No matter what she did, she set back black freedom for generations,” Chapman said.
Others disagree. John Sanders, former director of UNC’s Institute of Government, called Spencer a creature of her time and said she has been ill-treated by the recent campaign.
“I think on the whole, Cornelia was an admirable character and a constructive person,” he said.
Born in Harlem, N.Y., in 1825, Spencer didn’t move to Chapel Hill for another year.
Her mother, Judith Vermeule, held a small boarding school in her home, so Spencer had the unusual opportunity to be an educated woman in the antebellum South.
Her father, James Phillips, took the family to Chapel Hill when he was offered a job in the University’s mathematics department.
She married lawyer James Munroe Spencer in 1855 and moved with him to Alabama, where they had their only daughter. Spencer was widowed in 1861 and returned to her father’s home in Chapel Hill.
She made a living as a tutor and soon began research for a project that had been suggested to her by leading Democrats at the time. Published in 1868 and titled “The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina,” the book defended the state’s role during the Civil War.
No one read or bought the book, according to Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South, but it convinced ardent Democratic supporters that Spencer could take a public role.
“(Spencer) wrote letters and columns urging parents not to send their children to UNC under the Republicans,” Watson said.
At the time, the Republicans were the more liberal of the two political parties. President Lincoln, who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, was a member of the party, and so were the leaders of the University during Reconstruction.
This initial wave of letters forms another heated segment of the debate on Spencer. Some, including Watson, said all public papers indicate that Spencer thought a decline in enrollment would cause the Republicans to be fired — not cause a total shutdown of the University.
Chapman said it’s a question of interpretation, and he believes Spencer would have done anything, including closing the school, to stop the Republicans.
Once the University was closed, Spencer wrote letters to head state officials on a daily basis demanding its reorganization and reopening.
She continued to advocate for change in the realm of education, writing in favor of schooling for black children and higher education for women.
Sanders emphasized that Spencer grew up when blacks were believed to possess lower mental and moral abilities. “She supported some degree of education (for blacks) because it would make them more useful servants,” he said.
In 1894, Spencer left to live with her daughter in Cambridge, Mass. She died March 11, 1908.
Relating to the retirement of the award honoring Spencer, Watson said sensitivity in these issues is paramount. “We have to respect the community, respect the family and respect the facts.”
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