Genna Rae McNeil — the first Black tenure-track faculty member in UNC's history department — will retire this semester after working at UNC for 36 years.
McNeil, a professor specializing in African American History with an emphasis on race, law and social movements, joined the history department in 1974. She joined the department under the recommendation of American scholar John Hope Franklin; she was his doctoral student at the University of Chicago.
McNeil said that her parents — Jesse Jai and Pearl Lee Walker McNeil, who both earned doctorate degrees — instilled a fire in her that one should take advantage of opportunities to be the first.
She said this pushed her to be the first African American to take the entrance exam for the Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, California, and the first African American to graduate from the school in 1965.
“God has placed this power within us to do more than we can even imagine, so we should not be stymied in our struggles and in our challenges,” McNeil said.
Growing up, McNeil excelled in many areas. She became associate editor of her high school newspaper, a singer covering songs by Aretha Franklin in her college band and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Kalamazoo College.
She sought justice and truth through her one-person protest in high school of the 1964 California Proposition 14 — which permitted discrimination on racial and ethnic grounds when selling housing. She was also involved with the Black Student Organization at Kalamazoo College, which included demonstrations for hiring Black professors and fair treatment of Black students in work-study.
McNeil said this carried her through her graduate education at the University of Chicago and her first years teaching at UNC. Despite being asked by a student in her class at UNC if she had a degree, she expanded the African American History course from one semester to two.
McNeil resigned from her faculty position in 1979 after returning from a leave of absence. During her leave, she was a visiting professor at the Howard University School of Law and worked on amici curiae briefs for the landmark case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
She returned to UNC in July 1990. She has since chaired UNC’s Faculty Hearings Committee, served on the Pogue Scholarship selection committee, the Advisory Committee for the Institute of African American Research and currently, the department’s Working Group on Equity and Inclusion.
Professor Miguel La Serna, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the history department and one of McNeil’s mentees, said that conversations with professor McNeil led to the creation of the working group this past semester.
“After the killing of George Floyd this past summer, it was Professor McNeil who initiated the conversation that needed to happen in our department about coming to terms with our own complicity in systems of white supremacy at UNC,” La Serna said.
With the support of the history department and the Center for the Study of the American South with professors Harry Watson and William Ferris, McNeil also founded the University's African American History Month Lecture — an annual lecture series that recognizes the importance of African American history through leading scholars and scholar-activists. McNeil said she had help from the Sonja Haynes Stone Center Director Joseph Jordan, former diversity officer G. Rumay Alexander, as well as history department accountant Joyce Loftin.
“She’s a constant," Jordan said. "She’s the one that can tell you how to make things better. She’s the one that can help make sense of what’s on the page. She’s the one that can tell you why this particular political movement was not as successful as another. She’s that kind of mentor."
McNeil’s mentorship extends beyond her colleagues into the classroom. She calls her students "student-scholars," and aims to create a non-hostile learning environment for each one. She tells them they should understand themselves as history-makers who can apply what they have learned from the classroom into transforming the world around them.
For example, McNeil turned the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol into a broader teaching moment for her two classes, American Constitutional History and Race, Racism and Law, discussing the implications of that event through a constitutional history and critical race theory lens.
During her retirement, McNeil will finish writing her book on the “'Free Joan Little' Movement." She will also continue to make recommendations for alumni awards and honorary degrees for people of color and women.
“I've already told her that I'm going to continue to be in conversation with her and look to her guidance and wisdom on issues that we can find,” La Serna said. “Anytime that there are important issues happening in the world or at the University, or even with respect to the minutia departmental day-to-day dealings, we're going to think, ‘Well if Genna Rae McNeil were here right now, what would she do?’”
At the close of each semester, McNeil has a practice of celebrating graduating seniors by giving each one a page of quotations from African American figures and proverbs. She also reads a quotation from Howard Thurman, Audre Lorde or a proverb for her entire class.
"My favorite words to share come from a proverb, the origin of which is many cultures: African, Chinese, Greek and Irish," McNeil said. "It speaks to the individual's role in transformation of any society toward that which is good and just for all. It speaks to what has motivated me as a professor: 'A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under the shade of which they do not expect to sit."
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