In the first of a two-part webinar series, the Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward discussed the original motivation for the Unsung Founders Memorial and community responses from the time of the memorial's creation to its dedication.
The webinar, held Oct. 18, featured several panelists, including Byron Wilson, vice president of UNC’s 2002 senior class and one of the main organizers for the establishment of the Unsung Founders Memorial.
The memorial, a gift from the Class of 2002, was created to commemorate the enslaved men and women and their descendants who built and have sustained the life of the University from its founding.
The memorial is made up of five stone seats and a black granite tabletop, held up by 300 bronze figures. The size of the memorial is approximately two feet tall, which some community members said they feel is too small.
In recent years, University leaders have considered solutions to address the fact that the Unsung Founders Memorial has been sinking into the ground. The memorial was also vandalized by two individuals in 2019.
The webinar featured a prerecorded message from artist Do Ho Suh, who defended his decision not to use a pedestal in the memorial.
“I did not want to use a pedestal because to me, a pedestal represents traditional colonial power, elevating individuals who often have terrible records of imparting trauma,” Suh said. "Unsung Founders is different. It presents a group capable of the most profound strength and integrity. Those people must never be forgotten within or without the University walls."
Wilson shared some of the challenges involved in the proposal and establishment of the monument, including the location of the statue. He also said that at the time, the University "was not interested in the memorial."
“We held strong — it should go nowhere else other than in the oldest quad on campus, since it is there to memorialize the people who built the oldest quad on campus,” Wilson said. “And that was not a popular stance, but that was ours.”
Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History and vice provost for academic and community engagement, was another of the webinar's panelists.
He said that he recalls being struck by some of the other proposals from Suh of the Unsung Founders Memorial that were six feet tall, larger than the final product. Jordan also said there can be differences in an artist's intent and how a piece is interpreted and treated by members of the public.
"I don't think we can try to make a distinction between art and what we do to commemorate, that people find art where they find it," Jordan said.
Jordan said he was also on the building and grounds committee at the time of the memorial proposal.
“I can tell you that the discussions didn't necessarily get heated,” Jordan said. “But they did get elevated at times because some people had different ideas of where it was supposed to be placed.”
Some of the alternate locations included on the side of Wilson Library, Steele Building and Rams Head Plaza on South Campus, according to panelists. The final location ended up being McCorkle Place, the upper quad on campus.
The webinar also featured Chapel Hill community members, who spoke on how the memorial has impacted their lives.
Commission member and historian Danita Mason-Hogans was another of the webinar's panelists. Mason-Hogans, a seventh-generation native of Chapel Hill, said she was struck by the fact that those generationally from Chapel Hill were not involved in the conversation on how to honor their ancestors through this memorial.
“It hits differently when you are from this area, and people are talking about paying homage to your great grandfather, or your great great grandfather, and you're not being a part of that conversation,” she said. “And not only not being a part of the conversation, kind of feeling the need to express gratitude to the people who came up with this monument because at least at last, you were recognized.”
Mason-Hogans said if community members and Black artists were brought to the table, some of the critiques of the memorial could have been addressed sooner, rather than the burden being on the students proposing the monument.
“I'm so grateful for the work of the young people, and what I hope is that we've learned how these processes really need to be looked at, evaluated and changed,” Mason-Hogans said.
Wilson responded to this by saying he believes he did the best he could as a student but agreed the process could have been better and that he was also dissatisfied with the end results.
Panelist and retired UNC professor of African American studies and history Reginald Hildebrand said that he doesn't recall having conversations with students and colleagues about the development until 2005, a few years after the memorial was proposed. He also said that he was conflicted about a "difficult situation," with regards to the memorial.
“There's some difficulties and some things that we have to work through,” Hildebrand said. “But the starting point is, there are no villains in this story. There are great many heroes.”
The second webinar in this series will be a conversation on what is next for the memorial. The date has not yet been released.
The Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward was founded in 2019 and was later asked by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in 2020 to explore the University's racial history and provide recommendations as to what steps should be taken to reckon with UNC's past.
The commission is made up of UNC faculty and community members, alongside three student commission members.
The full recording of the webinar is accessible on the commission's website.
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