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Proposed William Richardson Davie statue faces criticism

William Richardson Davie is proving as controversial in death as he was in life.

The “founding father” of UNC, who left North Carolina in the early 1800s after losing a Congressional election, could have a statue built in his honor on the University’s campus — but his history as a slave-owner is giving pause to critics.

House Bill 927, filed at the N.C. General Assembly Thursday, calls for the construction of a statue of Davie on UNC grounds without using public funding.

Davie helped establish UNC as the first state university in the United States in 1789.

But UNC history professor Harry Watson said the statue might offend some students if they learned more about Davie.

“It is doubtful people will have paid of a lot of attention to Davie’s past,” he said.

Davie was a staunch proponent of slaveholders’ rights and owned 116 slaves on his plantation in South Carolina at the time of his death.

Rep. Michael Wray, D-Halifax, co-sponsor of the bill, said Davie was an important figure in the state’s history regardless of his involvement with slavery.

Davie was a representative for the town of Halifax before he served as governor of North Carolina.

Wray said he supports the bill because of Davie’s illustrious political career, not his connections to slavery.

“That was in the 1700s and we are in the 21st century,” he said.

But Blanche Brown, a member of UNC’s chapter of the advocacy group Student Power N.C., said the statue would misrepresent Davie’s place in history.

“I do not think you can accurately say Davie founded the University without saying how he was put in a position to be able to do that,” she said. “Slave labor and the oppression of African-Americans got him to where he was.”

Watson said the argument about the Davie statue is similar to a 2004 controversy.

He led a commission that discontinued the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell award for distinguished women after attention was drawn toward Bell’s opposition to racial equality after the Civil War.

“It was discontinued because there were no women who were willing to accept an award which had become the subject of so much controversy,” he said.

UNC already has a Poplar tree, a bench and a building named after Davie.

Watson said UNC commemorates similar men to Davie across campus.

“While I think it would be suitable to honor Davie with a statue eventually, I would rather pursue more diversity in our historical memory at the present,” he said.

The bill states that there will be at least one public hearing on the statue, in which students and members of the public would be able to comment on its erection.

Brown said UNC should do more to commemorate the efforts of black men and women.

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“I honestly think there are easy steps to present a more accurate and inclusive history of UNC,” she said.

The bill directs the UNC-system Board of Governors to develop a plan for locating the statue as well as raising private funds.

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