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UNC history professor William Sturkey aims to empower students to talk about race

William Sturkey, an associate history professor at UNC who specializes in the racial history of post-1865 America, poses for a portrait in his office on Feb. 1, 2022.

The readings for William Sturkey’s America in the Sixties class include much of what one might expect from another history course — speeches from John F. Kennedy, articles about the Vietnam War and lectures on the civil rights movement.

But the associate professor of history also includes required listening in his syllabus: some of the top songs of the 1960s, from Bob Dylan to The Temptations to Aretha Franklin to his current favorite, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding.

“The music is also a primary source,” Sturkey said. “So as we're analyzing, let's say, the way that young people might think about men's and women's relationships, we listen to some of the songs about dating, some of the major pop hits. We have a whole day on Motown and The Beatles.”

Sturkey said the goal of the class is to tie together all of the different movements of the '60s — from music to foreign policy to civil rights — to get a broader understanding of the decade.

His research focuses on the history of race in the South, writing about the experiences of non-white people who have fundamentally shaped American history but have largely been excluded from the narrative around it, he said.

His most recent book, “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White,” centers on a Black community in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era leading up to the civil rights movement. 

“People like my family members haven't been included in the story of who Americans are and what America is,” Sturkey said. “And a large part of my work is centering their lives in that story.”

Sturkey said he was initially drawn to studying history and the history of race because of his personal experiences with racism growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania. In college, he took history classes that empowered him to more deeply understand the nature of race in the United States.

And now that he's the one teaching, he wants to do the same for his students.

“I love empowering students to talk about race in America,” Sturkey said. “As much as I care and appreciate the topic of race in the 1960s when all these dramatic changes happened, the most important thing, I think, is to give young people a space to have dialogue about important topics in our society.”

Senior Riley Green registered for Sturkey’s American History since 1865 class when she was a first-year. Green originally took the course to fulfill a general education credit, but she said it ended up being one of her favorite classes she's taken at UNC because of how much information Sturkey packed into his engaging lectures.

"He was super knowledgeable, was always willing to answer questions and explain things in depth," Green said. "And you can really tell he was passionate about what he taught."

In fall 2019, Sturkey taught a one-credit class called “Race & Memory at UNC,” which explored the history of race on campus, from the University's founding to more contemporary issues.

He said the class was offered during a moment when students were hungry for information about UNC’s racial history that wasn’t being provided by the University to educate them.

Erik Gellman, an associate professor in the history department, said the class did a lot to expose the structures of white supremacy that the University was built on and UNC's failure to reckon with its past.

“I think he has done a great service to this university to bring those things to light," Gellman said. "And so that the University has been forced, in many ways, to reckon with some of these legacies, including, of course, Silent Sam and that statue being permanently removed, the renaming of buildings on campus and the history behind the names of those buildings.”

On Feb. 18, Sturkey will speak at an event also titled “Race and Memory at UNC,” alongside civil rights activist and historian Danita Mason-Hogans.

He said the discussion, which will explore the basic elements of UNC’s racial history, was originally designed to help new faculty understand the University's past.

“It's not just going to be sort of story time,” Sturkey said. “A crucial component to this is also why we struggle so much with this history in our current moment and what prevents UNC-Chapel Hill from being a leading institution when it comes to telling its own story.”

 @hannahgracerose |

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