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'What an incredible injustice': UNC criticized for handling of racist past

conversations on equity

William Sturkey, an assistant history professor at UNC, gives a talk about the history of race at UNC and the University's failures to reconcile it. The talk was at Chapel Hill Public Library on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

Earlier this week, members of the community gathered at the Chapel Hill Public Library for “Conversations on Equity,” a speaker series sponsored by local groups that delves into issues of equity and race relations in the community.

The subject of the lecture on Tuesday night quickly turned to the complicated history of race relations at UNC, and how, according to those present at the meeting, the University has failed in confronting its troubled past.

William Sturkey, an assistant history professor at UNC, was the featured speaker at the meeting. He specializes in the history of race in the American South and teaches courses about southern history and the Civil Rights Movement.

He may be more familiar to audiences at the national level for a recent op-ed column he wrote in the New York Times published in December 2019. The article berated UNC’s legal settlement with the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, which gave the neo-Confederate group possession of the controversial Silent Sam monument and granted $2.5 million dollars in a trust to be used for its preservation and display. 

On Feb. 12, Judge Allen Baddour vacated the settlement, putting Silent Sam's future back up in the air.

At the meeting, Sturkey criticized how UNC has neglected to acknowledge the dark history of enslavement that led to the development of the University, especially in the antebellum era.

He mentioned the unmarked graves of slaves at the Barbee Cemetary, which is owned by the University and is located a short distance away from its business school’s Rizzo Center, as one example of this trend. He expressed anger that the University failed to recognize that these bodies were buried there without making this information clear to the public or making any effort to restore these historical sites.

“There are actual Black bodies in the ground, and no one seems to give a damn,” Sturkey said. “What an incredible injustice.”

He also cited the University’s moratorium on renaming campus buildings as a way in which the University is refusing to take accountability for its past misdeeds. This decision was made by the Board of Governors in 2015 after the renaming of Saunders Hall, which was originally named for William Saunders, a chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina and Chapel Hill.

Paris Miller, an educator and member of the board of directors for the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, a nonprofit organization in Northside, then cited the importance of UNC’s active involvement in community dialogue.

She said she believes it is important for the University to address its past directly instead of simply making superficial changes without input from other members of the community. 

“They need to show up in the room more,” Miller said. “I feel like there’s this semblance of interacting with the community, but the work that needs to be done isn’t being done.” 

She also said she took issue with the fact that there are no representatives from the UNC Department of History on the school’s new Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward — something Sturkey also took issue with during his talk. Though the committee is co-chaired by a history professor, Jim Leloudis, the other 13 members serving under him are from various other departments and organizations.

This lecture was part of a series of speaking engagements organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, the Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools and the Orange County Human Relations Commission. They sponsor conversations open to the public on the third Tuesday of each month. 

Anna Richards, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, said this series is about equity in a broad sense, with a focus on racial equity in local schools. She added that they are critical in kickstarting important conversations in the community about these issues.

“We think it’s vital,” Richards said. “We have to be able to talk about these issues, talk to each other and learn.”

The next presentation of the series will discuss the achievement gap for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and the school board’s new Office of Equity and Inclusion. It will take place at the Chapel Hill Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17.


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