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Task Force to tell the history of the University from its builders to its first students

The Unsung Founders Memorial was a subject of debate earlier this year, 2017, during the Silent Sam sit-in.

The Unsung Founders Memorial was a subject of debate earlier this year, 2017, during the Silent Sam sit-in.

Underneath the changing leaves in McCorkle Place stand Silent Sam and the Unsung Founders Memorial — symbols of the University’s rich history. But underneath those monuments lie the stories of the University’s founding that have not been told, stories that the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History was appointed to tell.

The task force is co-chaired by Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs, Amy Locklear Hertel, director of the American Indian Center, and Jim Leloudis, professor of history and associate dean for Honors Carolina. It was appointed in 2015 by Chancellor Carol Folt, following the Board of Trustees’ direction to teach and curate a full and accurate history of the University after the vote to rename Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall. 

Within the history of how this University was built, three individual narratives stand out: the first students who walked the quiet pathways of McCorkle, the enslaved people who built them and the indigenous people who were on this land before the University was even founded.

Through projects that will enrich, renovate and contextualize McCorkle, Silent Sam and Unsung Founders, the task force will provide the public with that history.

“It will help us to understand this place that we all hold so dear in such a significant way,” Hertel said.

The Task Force 

McCorkle Place is the second directive Folt gave the task force, which she announced in a statement to campus in September 2015.

The first task was the contextualization behind the BOT’s decision to rename Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall. They created an exhibit for the lobby of Carolina Hall, completed in November 2016, explaining the broader history of William Saunders in the state and the University.

Now, the task force is tackling McCorkle, using the space and monuments within it to tell the history of the University before, around and after its founding in the 18th century. They developed a three-step plan to be enacted through telling those three main stories.

“When you think about those three pieces, there’s been a lot of context around them,” Hertel said. “So the idea is that we create some context around them in some form of signage that would be fitting with the space, and at the same time creating an electronic access to really tell the deeper stories.”

The Monuments

In September, Leloudis presented the preliminary timeline to the BOT for the McCorkle project — the first step being the Unsung Founders memorial, which he said is in need of repair and renovation.

“The (University) has engaged a landscape architect firm who will be bringing preliminary proposals to think about how to make that a more reverential and contemplative space that advances its original intent,” Leloudis said.

He said that part of the project will hopefully be complete by May 2018.

Mike McFarland, director of university relations, said the task force updates the BOT continuously on progress of the project, and plans are in the works to share those details with the campus.

Advisory committees will also be engaged to receive feedback from the community; Crisp works most with engaging students and members of the campus.

Following the renovation and repair will come the contextualization, done in the form of signage around the monuments and throughout the space.

While the project will begin with the story of those who were enslaved at the University’s founding, Leloudis said the task force will also place signs detailing the history of the indigenous people this land belonged to originally.

“There were people on this hill before the University was even established,” Hertel said. “We are lifting that story up because that story’s never been told.”

The plan is then to establish similar signage around the Confederate Monument, Silent Sam, the story the campus — and nation — want most to be told.

“The Confederate Monument is the complex one in terms of what we can and can’t do,” Leloudis said. “But we are doing the research and documentation.”

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Leloudis said he and his colleagues welcome the current conversation around Silent Sam and the questions regarding its history.  

“This is a University that was founded in the late 18th century that was founded in a slave society,” Leloudis said. “This is a University that sits on land that was expropriated from people. This is a University that was shaped in the era of Jim Crow. There are hard things in our history, and these are complex stories, these are very nuanced stories. These are not straightforward and simple morality tales, good or bad.”