Associate history professor William Sturkey along with civil rights activist and historian Danita Mason-Hogans led a “Race and Memory at UNC” discussion at Hyde Hall on Friday.
Open to the community, the discussion focused on the history of race and memory at UNC from 1789 to the present, according to the event's description.
Sturkey began the event by speaking about the lack of community historical awareness on campus.
He said that through community protests around the Silent Sam statue, he found that people often had no idea about some of the Black history in North Carolina. As an example, Sturkey highlighted the lack of knowledge around how many North Carolinians enslaved people.
“What you need to realize is the place that we live in, the University, was founded in a slave society,” he said. “Slavery was the central organizing principle of that society.”
He also said that about one-third of all people living in North Carolina were enslaved, and almost every single early founder of the University was a slave owner.
Sturkey said he is struck by how much UNC history has been erased.
“We should tell our history, but there are so many elements of that history that have just been completely ignored,” he said. “And that, to me, is offensive as a Black person living in this place who cares about Black people that used to live in this place.”
Mason-Hogans said she largely grew up on UNC's campus and her family was raised to serve the powerful people at the University. Her family has lived in the Chapel Hill area for seven generations, she said.
She said there is a parallel that exists between America and UNC, specifically with a history of servitude, subjugation and racism.
“This is as old in America as it is at UNC,” Mason-Hogans said. “But as a movement person, I also know that there was resistance from that beginning too, and I don’t think that we delve into that.”
Mason-Hogans said she remembers her mom taking her as a child to Memorial Hall to listen to Ebony Readers/Onyx Theater and see Opeyo! Dance Company, which she later realized were forms of protest.
“The activism looks different during different periods," Mason-Hogans said. "But it was always being used."
Sturkey said he believes there is a gap between who the University says it is and how the University actually approaches issues that impact students, faculty, staff and the local community.
“We can be a nice, quiet, calm institution that teaches people to go out and get jobs ... but that's not who UNC says it is,” Sturkey said. “We say we are a world-class research university. We say that we are the premier place to study the American South.”
Mason-Hogans said she thinks every incoming faculty and student should read the book, “To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation's Oldest Public University” to understand local history.
Written by Geeta N. Kapur, a civil rights lawyer and two-time UNC alumna, the book provides a comprehensive look at UNC's history of systemic racism starting from 1776. Kapur worked on the book for over a decade, and it was released in September 2021.
Mason-Hogans said she has always seen an influx of people coming to and taking from Chapel Hill’s community without having an understanding of it.
“We do have to be very careful with the ways that we enter into the community,” Mason-Hogans said. “Because we also have experienced a lot of extraction and quite frankly, a lot of white saviorism that came in with good intentions, but ultimately harmed our community.”
Pamela Lothspeich, director of the New Faculty Program and moderator of the event, said that Sturkey and Mason-Hogans are leaders in the community.
"I know a lot of Black leaders have been asked to do a lot of this work, this kind of emotional and intellectual labor," Lothspeich said. "There's trauma in that."
Sturkey said he does not find UNC leaders to be that engaged in history. He also said that the University budget does not meet the reality of community needs, nor do budget decisions reflect where someone who is engaged in studying UNC history might move resources.
There are many different disciplines that the history of race in Chapel Hill and on campus could intersect with, Sturkey said.
“It’s about empowering everyone that comes after us,” Sturkey said. “It’s about inspiring people that come after us, it’s about taking the feeling that we all have and putting it forward in a way that allows us to understand how we got here and how we can leave a better place for our own kids.”
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