In early December, the University announced that it would rename two buildings on campus, previously known as Aycock Residence Hall and the Student Affairs building. These renamings are part of an ongoing effort to address campus buildings with names tied to white supremacists.
The new building names honor two pioneers from UNC history: Henry Owl, the first American Indian student and student of color to attend UNC, and Hortense McClinton, the first Black faculty member to teach and hold a tenure-track appointment at UNC.
“... Both dedicated themselves to public service, to helping other people," history professor Kathleen DuVal said in an email statement. “They embodied the values that we try to live up to here at Carolina and can make us proud to live, study and work in halls that bear their names.”
The Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward selected the buildings for renaming in the summer of 2020. This began the renaming process, which requires names to be submitted by the commission, reviewed by the chancellor and an advisory committee and subsequently approved by the Board of Trustees.
History professor Theda Perdue, one of the faculty members involved in the renaming process, said her past work on campus has included efforts to commemorate Owl's legacy, after learning more about his story during her research and while teaching a Cherokee history course at Western Carolina University.
“I didn’t get very far then (at UNC), but I piqued the interest of a number of people, faculty and administrators and students,” Perdue said. “Over the years, this has just been an idea floating around.”
Perdue said the current renaming was a group effort, involving a member of the Owl family and support from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation.
“To get something done like this, it’s not something one person can do," she said. "It’s something that takes lots of voices and lots of perspectives. It was no one person. It was no handful of people. It was a community of people, from all over the country, who joined in it."
Though Perdue has been pushing for this renaming, she expressed that this action alone did not undo the University’s history.
“This is the right thing to do,” Perdue said. “And it’s after a year of disaster, in terms of our public image on matters of race. This doesn’t rehabilitate it completely, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
“While we appreciate the renaming of the buildings and the acknowledgement that this action cannot undo the wrongs of the past, Native students on UNC's campus today still feel unseen and unheard on this campus," the CIC Executive Council said. "The only safe spaces we have are the ones we create for ourselves, and the renaming of a building doesn't change that."
Similarly, Shuhud Mustafa, a sophomore and member of the Community Justice, Abolition & Antiracism's executive team, asked what else the University was doing to support students and communities of color.
“One of my initial thoughts was, ‘OK, so we got the building names changed, but where do we go from here?’” Mustafa said. “For me personally, I value actions more than I do words, and UNC’s actions have not aligned with these symbolic changes on campus.”
One of the examples Mustafa gave was the University’s response to the COVID-19 omicron variant spike. She believes the campus is opening too early and that it will impact students of color and other marginalized communities more heavily.
“I largely feel that UNC has ignored the opinions of students and staff on campus," Mustafa said. "I personally believe that we’ve opened too early. This specifically impacts students of color, marginalized folks, people who are immunocompromised and people who are disabled.”
Mustafa said another issue UNC has yet to address is the lack of diversity among faculty, citing the UNC Board of Trustees' initial failure to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones during the summer of 2021.
“Many people within the UNC administrator side of things, as well as faculty, were heavily against her being a professor at our university, to the point where she felt unwelcomed,” Mustafa said. “That signified to me, as a Black woman, a queer Black woman at that, that UNC doesn’t really care about our interests in having professors of color. Specifically Black professors, that will nurture us and support our needs because they understand our backgrounds and the struggles that we go through, especially at a PWI.”
Perdue echoed a similar sentiment. In the past two years, Perdue said, the American Indian & Indigenous studies department have lost two American Indian professors, Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote, who died in August, and Malinda Maynor Lowery, who announced she was leaving UNC for a position at Emory University in June. Their positions have yet to be replaced.
“It seems to me that if you’re going to be a University for all the people in North Carolina, you need to include all the people in North Carolina, and that applies to students, but also faculty,” Perdue said. “Naming a building doesn't do it. Naming a building is a step, but it’s not the goal.”
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