In a year where debates surrounding Silent Sam have taken precedence in campus discourse, many University Day speakers emphasized the need to carry the lessons of UNC’s past into its future.
On its 225th birthday, UNC administrators, faculty, staff and students looked back on its checkered history to help UNC adapt to a modern age.
Chancellor Carol Folt opened the University Day ceremony with remarks on UNC’s mission to provide an accessible, affordable and excellent education to all students. Folt acknowledged the debt owed by UNC to the indigenous people of North Carolina and the slaves who built the University.
“As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I offer our University’s deepest apology for the injustices of slavery, our full acknowledgement of the slave people’s strength in the face of their suffering and our respect and indebtedness to them, and I reaffirm our University’s commitment to facing squarely and working to right the wrongs of history, so they’re never again inflicted,” Folt said.
A long round of applause from the audience followed and Folt continued, expressing her hope to see UNC learn from its history — bad and good.
“Our apology must lead to purposeful action, and it must build on the efforts and the sacrifices of so many across the years who fought so hard for much of what we value at Carolina today,” Folt said. “If done with honesty and resolve, with strength and purpose, our choices will help us come to terms with our past and move to the better future.”
The keynote speakers continued the theme of carrying the echoes of history into the future.
James Leloudis, a UNC history professor, reminded the audience of the University’s past struggles with inclusion and equality, from its beginnings as a university for the elite, to its place in the midst of antebellum white supremacy, to its gradual diversification in the 20th century.
“A new voice found favor amongst a new generation of aspiring students, who demanded that the University open its doors to all North Carolinians,” Leloudis said.
Leloudis is a member of the Chancellor's Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History, which was created to tell the story of UNC’s past. It is responsible for exhibits around campus that aim to teach the history of the University, especially regarding race and democracy. During his address, he gave an update on educational markers that will go up around McCorkle Place.
“New signs and thresholds at the quad entrances will mark the birthplace of American public higher education and also acknowledge the indigenous peoples who are the original stewards of this land and whose descendants work, discover, learn and teach here today,” Leloudis said.
He said another marker will be placed near the Unsung Founders memorial to express the University's remorse for its role in the injustices of slavery.
"That sign will also invite visitors to join us in the ongoing work of researching and recovering the full humanity of the enslaved men and women who built so much of the early University,” he said.
Leloudis said once the final destination of Silent Sam is determined, the History Task Force will create educational materials for the Confederate monument.
Gesturing to the rosters of Confederate soldiers on either side of the stage, Leloudis said the history of those memorials, Memorial Hall and many buildings around UNC’s campus will be part of the History Task Force’s effort to tell the full story of UNC’s history.
“We know from a campuswide audit that we undertook, that there are 183 named buildings and memorials, monuments and spaces on this campus,” Leloudis said. “Thirty three, or just under a fifth, are named for people who owned slaves. Ten are named for political figures and scholars who were advocates of white supremacy. Twenty three are named for women, five for African Americans.”
Leloudis said these stories, though painful, are also enlightening and necessary to shape the University’s future.
Quoting former North Carolina Governor William Holden, Leloudis said, “These universities are not the work of a day. They are of the ages and the centuries.”
Felicia A. Washington, vice chancellor for Workforce Strategy, Equity and Engagement, addressed the University’s present, the progress it has made, its position as a champion of opportunity and the work still left to be done.
“We wrestle with challenges, such as the NCAA controversy and HB2 or today’s seriously complex Title IX responsibilities and Silent Sam,” said Washington. “I believe Carolina will be even stronger and better because we will work through the challenges just as our predecessors worked through the challenges, making their Carolina better.”
Folt’s keynote address made predictions for UNC’s future.
“We will continue to work to connect our present with our past. Honestly, openly and deeply,” Folt said. “That includes but certainly is not limited to the Confederate monument and the ongoing effort to contextualize the names of the historic buildings and places on our campus.”
Folt said UNC would work to adapt to a modern world in innovative ways, globalize, diversify and support its student body, allow UNC’s faculty to take their work to a global stage and help North Carolina prepare its workforce and economy for the future.
“We must leave a world and a healthy planet in which those who follow us can thrive,” Folt said. “A rich legacy that is going to be founded in honesty, trust and goodwill. There are some periods in our nation’s history when those qualities can seem to be in short supply, and that’s when it’s absolutely most vital for us to cultivate the qualities that connect us.”
Each keynote speaker urged the UNC community to remember all of the University’s history to avoid repeating its past mistakes.
As the UNC Ceremonial Band played the opening notes of Hark the Sound, signaling the end of the celebration, robed professors and administrators, students and graduates linked arms and sang the alma mater.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.