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Faculty grapple with UNC's racial history

At the inaugural event of the Difficult Conversations series Thursday, faculty agreed students are not the only ones who must confront the University’s racial history.

In response to revitalized student interest in contextualizing memorials and buildings on campus, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities involved faculty in the discussion, “Confronting UNC’s Legacy of White Supremacy."

“This will be like a faculty lounge,” said Mark Katz, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. “People can talk and say what they’re thinking without being worried about how it’ll be interpreted.”

Katz said the purpose of this particular discussion was not to reiterate the problem, but to discuss how to best move forward and interact with UNC’s past in a just and thoughtful way.

“We’re talking about white supremacy not to pick at old wounds, but, in the most positive sense, to derive strength by facing this history,” he said.

Kia Caldwell, associate professor in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, spoke about coming to UNC from California to teach and confronting a University that honors its race-related roots — such as Silent Sam, which memorializes Confederate soldiers.

“What does it mean for all of us to live in the shadow of Silent Sam?” Caldwell asked. “Diversity is something that’s kind of watered down and can make us feel good, but what does it mean?”

Caldwell pointed to the reality that Confederate memorials in the South also speak to the political context in which they were installed.

“These memorials were built several decades after the Civil War,” Caldwell said. “These were tributes to the Confederacy, but also racialized statements during the Jim Crow era.”

“If Silent Sam had been built in the town of Chapel Hill, would he be removed by now? If so, why is he still on our campus? ... What kinds of oppression are we choosing to recognize?”

Religious studies professor Todd Ochoa echoed Caldwell’s concern over the multi-faceted impetus for building the memorials.

“It’s my understanding that it was built during a time of Klan resurgence,” Ochoa said. “It cannot just be a memorial to the fallen.”

Conversation turned to discussion of Saunders Hall, named after William L. Saunders, North Carolina politician, UNC trustee and chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in the late 19th century.

History professor Anne Whisnant brought up the theory that historical memorials tell three narratives: those of the era it purports to represent, the time it was built and when a visitor experiences it.

“The moment the UNC trustees said naming the hall this way would be a good idea wasn’t when Saunders was alive,” Whisnant said. “That’s almost more important than what Saunders did or didn’t do.”

Anthropology professor Anna Agbe-Davies said despite fundamentally disliking Silent Sam, she appreciates the effect he has on dialogue.

“He’s a trigger for these conversations to begin,” Agbies-Davis said. “I worry that if he goes away, people stop talking about the issues and don’t acknowledge the current state of white supremacy.”

Former chancellor James Moeser said UNC has been intimately involved with racialized national issues since its opening in 1789, making its history difficult.

“This university has a singularly difficult problem in that our roots were planted in slavery and nurtured during Jim Crow,” Moeser said.

Amy Locklear Hertel, director of the American Indian Center, said she appreciates that American Indians are being admitted into the dialogue revolving around issues of white supremacy.

“Historically and today, we’re left out of this conversation,” she said. “When you’re left out of the identification of the problem, then you’re left out of the solution, and marginalization continues.”

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“My grandmother used to say to me, ‘If you know better, do better.’ As a university, we know better. We need to do better. How are we going to do that?”

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