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Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward hears from UVA leaders, looks ahead

The Unsung Founders Memorial was a subject of debate earlier this year, 2017, during the Silent Sam sit-in.
The Unsung Founders Memorial pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Today, there is still heavy debate surrounding it's race-related implications, and UNC's Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward met on Friday, May 7, 2020 over Zoom to discuss subcommittee goals and hear advice from UVA faculty on conducting a multiyear project that reckons with the University's racialized past, including ideas for the future of the controversial memorial.

UNC’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward welcomed four new student members and heard from the University of Virginia President's Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation at its third meeting Friday.

The commission also discussed the future of the Unsung Founders Memorial in light of the COVID-19 pandemic at the meeting, held virtually over Zoom and livestreamed on YouTube. 

Co-chairperson Patricia Parker began by introducing the commission's new student members: graduate students Ariana Avila and Danita Horton and undergraduate students Sydni Janell Walker and Graham Watkins.

Learning from UVA’s commission

Jim Leloudis, chairperson and a professor in the history department at UNC, asked the guests from UVA to share thoughts and advice for staging a large multi-year project similar to the one the commission is currently undertaking.

Kirt von Daacke, assistant dean and professor of history at UVA and chairperson of their commission, said that UVA had been working to come to terms with the institution’s past and broader impact on the local community, region and state through the UVA President's Commission on Slavery and the University,  established in 2013.

Von Daacke said the Commission on Slavery and the University, which is complemented by the work of the President's Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, originally focused on memorialization and research at UVA, but those goals have since expanded. 

Today, the Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation is informed by a restorative justice model. Its ultimate goals include acknowledgement, outreach, education and repair, von Daacke said.

“It requires a transparent process, not just by the commission, but by students, faculty, staff and mostly importantly the larger community in which the university has been embedded for the past 200 years,” von Daacke said. “We have continually expanded what we have understood community to mean and let that shape what we are doing.”

So far, UVA’s process has included the creation of a substantial memorial to enslaved people and the renaming of three buildings to remove the names of people whose work was dedicated to scientific racism, von Daacke said.

He said UVA has also engaged in seven years of near-constant community involvement and implemented educational programs like two introductory survey courses and an intensive summer camp for high school students that studies slavery.

Several UNC commissioners asked von Daacke and Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and co-chair of UVA’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, questions about their work and experience at UVA.

Douglas stressed the importance of prioritizing partnership with the local Charlottesville community in their work and drawing authority from the community as well as the university.

“The reality that the descendants are still living in the community means that you are able to draw on 200 years of social information,” Douglas said. “You cannot talk about race in America without thinking about Charlottesville and the university as two conjoined spaces.”

Plans for the Future

The three subcommittees of UNC’s commission also presented project-specific initiatives, which chairpersons Parker and Leloudis said will be used to put together an overarching framework to guide the commission’s work and draft a budget request.

The Engagement, Ethics and Reckoning subcommittee plans to draw from the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation framework. Commission member Ronald Harris said the subcommittee's goals include contextualizing slavery and its impact on campus and making changes to the Unsung Founders Memorial to better memorialize the enslaved individuals and other workers that built the University.

Chairperson Leloudis said the Archives, History, Research and Curation subcommittee’s aims include researching the history of slavery at UNC and forming a community advisory council.

Commissioner Larry Chavis, a professor in the business school and director of the UNC American Indian Center, said the Curriculum Development and Teaching subcommittee developed a mission statement focusing on “using a broad definition of curriculum as narrative” and “expanding the story of what it means to be a Tar Heel.”

Leloudis also spoke about the uncertain future of the Unsung Founders Memorial. The commission previously met to discuss plans for moving or changing the design of the memorial, which is currently sinking into the ground at McCorkle Place. 

“Because of budgetary issues and budgetary uncertainty created by the pandemic, there is not going to be an opportunity to move in an immediate way in addressing the Unsung Founders Memorial,” Leloudis said.

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Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja H. Stone Center for Black Culture and History at UNC, said he feels the commission should still make plans and develop ideas for the memorial to avoid losing momentum.

“One of the things I would hate to have happen is for (the University) to at some point announce that those restrictions have been lifted, and then we’re starting from a flat point,” Jordan said.

Leloudis said the commission won’t be in a position to spend funds on this issue, but that conceptual work can continue.

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