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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC community members call for action in response to racial injustice

As of Sunday, June 7, 2020, the free expression blocks outside of the FPG Student Union were painted with the names of Black victims of police brutality.

Students may be gone for the summer, but campus activism is alive and reaching a higher pitch as members of the UNC community work for a stronger response to the movements against racial injustice that are sweeping the country. 

Chapel Hill has seen multiple large community and student-led rallies in the three weeks since the death of George Floyd — one demonstration included a stop in front of South Building as protesters directed specific demands at the administrators working within. 

Among these demands and those circulating on social media are calls to defund UNC police, for an acknowledgment of UNC’s racist history and wealth derived from slavery and an end to the 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings. 

The University has not publicly acknowledged these demands in the weeks since Floyd was killed, though University Communications has posted multiple campuswide messages. In these messages, the University has stated its commitment to creating “an environment whereby the personal rights, lives and dignity of every member of our university community matters” and “campus-wide dialogue, healing and structural change.”

For some in the UNC community — like UNC graduate Michael Rashaad Galloway — these statements are not enough.

‘Make sure we voice our issues’

At the time of publication, a Facebook post made Saturday by Galloway circulated widely, with more than 40 shares on Facebook and nearly 300 retweets of a screenshot of the same post on Twitter.

The post calls for the immediate renaming of more than 30 campus buildings named after white supremacist figures, including Kenan Stadium. The stadium was built from donations made by William Rand Kenan Jr., but was originally named after his father. Kenan Sr. was a commander of one of the units that killed at least 30 Black people in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898.

Since posting, Galloway clarified that the Kenan family did request the stadium be dedicated to Kenan Jr., rather than Kenan Sr. in fall 2018. However, he said, the University has yet to add a plaque acknowledging Kenan Sr.’s role in the massacre or to honor the enslaved people “whose backs the Kenan family built their wealth off of.”

In 2015, the UNC Board of Trustees created a 16-year moratorium on changing building names, following student-led pressure to rename Saunders Hall, which was named after KKK member, William Saunders. The building was renamed “Carolina Hall," though activists advocated that it be named after Black author Zora Neale Hurston. 

Several members that served when the moratorium was enacted have left the board, Galloway said, making it important to put pressure on current members to lift the ban.

“We still have to make sure we voice our issues and that they are heard and reacted upon,” Galloway said.

In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said UNC’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward is “looking at” the building name moratorium, though he confirmed the Board of Trustees has authority over building renaming.

“Our Trustees are very aware of the conversations happening across our nation right now and I know they care deeply about our University and we're having important dialogue around this,” he said.

‘We have a lot of work ahead of us’

In a May 30 campuswide message, in which Guskiewicz first addressed the events in Minneapolis, he denounced the actions of the police officers involved. 

“As we struggle to comprehend these events, we share your sadness, grief and frustration, and recognize the pain the recurrence of such senseless acts of violence and racism causes for so many members of our community,” he wrote. “We add our voices to those calling for transparency and accountability.”  

When asked about Black students at UNC who are disappointed by the University’s past race-related actions and statements — issues like the Silent Sam monument, the BOT building moratorium and the previous presence of armed members of a Confederate group on campus — Guskiewicz said the University needs to do everything possible to ensure all students know they’re deeply cared about.

He referred to changes outlined in his June 11 campuswide message, including but not limited to: racial equity training for senior leaders, an online diversity training for all UNC community members and the establishment of benchmarks to annually track inclusion efforts.

“I know our leadership team cares deeply about this,” Guskiewicz said. “I feel that we have a lot of work ahead of us, but I'm proud of the things we've already put in place.”

On May 29, the day before the University released a statement, Campus Y Co-presidents Veda Patil and Thilini Weerakkody published a statement calling for action and expressing solidarity with protesters in response to George Floyd’s death, as well as other Black people killed by police officers.

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Patil and Weerakkody criticized calls for nonviolence, stating that “violence has been monopolized by white people and the state, and used against Black people for centuries.”

“This is a violence that every white institution is, at the very least, complicit in — including our university that claims to be “Carolina for All,’” the statement said. “Time and time again, the university has worked against Black students and activists, disregarded their safety and concerns, disenfranchised the local Black community, and actively upheld white supremacy through its actions.”  

UNC’s Black Student Movement posted a statement on its website May 30 calling for UNC, including its student organizations, to join them in denouncing racial violence.

“The work to eradicate racism and white supremacist violence cannot be labored only by members of the Black community. Silence is violence, and we call on all members of our Carolina community and beyond to denounce the brutal violence perpetuated by white supremacy in this country,” the statement said. “...We urge all members of our Carolina community to get involved locally in organizing around ending this violence and dismantling the facets of our society that perpetuate it.”

In recent weeks, several other UNC groups have released statements calling for justice, including UNC Black Congress, The Bridge, a group of art history graduate students and the global studies department.

‘Bring some of those statements into fruition’

As the current building name moratorium stands, UNC will be unable to rename campus buildings until 2031. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, other universities are receiving pressure to rename their own buildings named after racist figures.

At the University of Virginia, one building was recently renamed for Walter Ridley, the first Black person to earn a doctoral degree from UVA. The building, “Ruffner Hall,” was named after William Ruffner, an advocate for school segregation.

Student-athletes at the University of Texas released a statement that said they would not participate in recruitment activities until their demands were met. These demands include renaming buildings, educating campus members on the history of racism on UT’s campus and replacing the current school song, “The Eyes of Texas.”

Guskiewicz said UNC’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward will provide a list of recommendations for the University in the near future. He did not specify a timeline for when those recommendations would be produced or implemented.

“I just believe we've empowered them to move forward — there are scholars on that commission who study this, some of the best scholars in the country, and they're going to work closely together to provide the information that's needed to move us forward,” he said.

Danita Mason-Hogans, critical oral histories project manager at Duke University, is one of the 13 members on the commission, which was launched in January. Mason-Hogans, an oral historian with a focus on veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, said she accepted the position to “be on record for my great-great grandchildren” that she fought to share stories of oppression by UNC.

A lifelong Chapel Hill resident, her mom was a faculty member at UNC and her father was one of the Chapel Hill Nine.

“I was a child born into the complexities of loving a city and understanding that oppression close-up,” Mason-Hogans said. 

She acknowledged that the commission would not exist if it weren’t for the student activists who pressured the University to act, and said youth voices should lead the way going forward.

“So I think in this moment, we are compelled to do more than just write statements. In this moment, we're compelled to ask ourselves, 'What are we going to do about this legacy of white supremacy?'” she said. “It's really time to bring some of those statements into fruition.”