Sitting on the floor of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black History and Culture are a series of photos.
These images were just some of the story told in “Tarred Healing,” a photo story by photographer Cornell Watson, including scenes from the Rogers-Eubanks community, an inside look at a UNC Board of Trustees meeting and student demonstrations on the University's campus.
But instead of being mounted for display as originally planned, the windows into the Stone Center Gallery are covered, and the photos remain hidden from view.
In June, Watson was offered an artist residency at the Stone Center to create a body of work that captured spaces of memory for Black history.
Then, after six months of creating the photo story that would later be named “Tarred Healing,” a reflection of Black history through places, people and systems in Chapel Hill, the photos were pulled from display at the Stone Center in their solo exhibition set to open Feb. 22. This followed the images being featured in The Washington Post.
In a Feb. 24 statement, the Stone Center said there were "disagreements over content and scope" for how the story would be told. The center also said it was not made aware that the photo essay would be published in The Washington Post and were under the impression the display at the Stone Center would be the project's first public appearance.
But to Watson, the decision was censorship.
“The story was about a story of healing, nonlinear healing, the fact that, looking at what we are healing from, how we are healing, what's preventing the healing," Watson said. "All threaded through those spaces and those people and those systems, that was the story as it related to the Black community of Chapel Hill and the University. I mean, it was that simple.
"All they had to do was just put the photos up.”
Watson’s artist residency with the Stone Center
Watson’s photography journey to this point has been short, he said. He has only owned a camera for four years — he originally bought one to take family photos with — but his freelance photography business soon turned into features in The Washington Post and The New York Times. This was when he was first contacted by UNC, Watson said.
In 2020, UNC saw that Watson’s photo story “Behind the Mask” was featured in The Washington Post. The University reached out to him, he said, noting the “evocative” nature of the photo story and asked if he would create an exhibit like this on campus.
“'Behind the Mask' was a photo story that was kind of based on this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar called ‘We Wear the Mask,’” Watson said. “(It) was basically about the way that Black people move through society having to wear a mask to hide parts of themselves out of fear of retaliation from white supremacy.”
Initially, UNC wanted the exhibit to be similar to “Behind the Mask” and have a mixture of conceptual and documentary photographs that were engaging and inspired people to think differently about complex issues, he said.
To start, Watson was given a list of suggested locations to photograph, including where the Silent Sam statue once was, the Unsung Founders Memorial, the location where James Cates was murdered by a white supremacist biker gang, the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and Barbee-Hargrave Cemetery and more.
He said he began his research by attending a demonstration held by the Black Student Movement.
“(At the demonstration) the Black Student Movement is talking about not only Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Watson said. “But they’re also talking about James Cates and the lack of memorialization of James Cates over near the Student Union, they were talking about the Unsung Founders Memorial and the lack of protection around it and the disrespect of people sitting on it, eating on it, white supremacists desecrating it, and they’re talking about the safety of Black students in general.”
After attending this demonstration, Watson realized that many of the issues the students were speaking about were also on the suggested sites list he was given by the Stone Center.
Around this time, the BOT initially failed to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist — something that became an integral part of the story told in “Tarred Healing.”
“I’m exploring these sacred spaces and places of memory,” Watson said. “I’m witnessing the connection of past to present to real time that’s happening right in front of my eyes, so I follow that story. That’s what you do, as a journalist and in an artist residency, like I’m an artist but I’m also a journalist, so I’m going to follow this story.”
Watson said photos depicting this story would go on to become one of the points of tension between him and the Stone Center regarding the contents of his photo story.
Watson tells the story of Black community in Chapel Hill
There is a photo included in “Tarred Healing” of Clayton Somers, the vice chancellor for public affairs and secretary of the University, at a BOT meeting discussing Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure status.
In the photo, Somers is staring into the camera as Black students lead a demonstration behind him, a scene similar to one from 1979 when Sonja Haynes Stone, a qualified Black professor, was also denied tenure.
Watson attended this BOT meeting independent of any media because he wanted to photograph without restrictions, he said.
“That day was pretty heavy,” Watson said. “It took a while to even process what my eyeballs had just witnessed when I left out of that place because there were grown adults sitting around a table watching police harass students, physically harass students, pushing them out of the board meeting and not one single person said anything.”
This photo was one of the images rejected by the Stone Center for his solo exhibition of “Tarred Healing.”
In addition to the board meeting, one of the first places Watson went to photograph was the Unsung Founders Memorial. The resulting image would be another point of tension during his residency, but it was later decided that it would be included in the Stone Center display.
“The thing about that place is I wanted people to remember what it looked like and what it felt like from the gaze of a Black person,” Watson said. “Which is what I tried to create from the reinterpretation of Silent Sam as the silhouette with the noose above the Unsung Founders memorial. Because growing up, I grew up in (North Carolina), that’s how we’d always seen confederate statues so that’s how I made the interpretation.”
From a seated position at the Unsung Founders Memorial, the place where Silent Sam once stood can be seen. Although the statue is gone, Watson said, what it stood for is still there and is like a shadow that hovers over that space, the University and the community.
“It’s also very representative of the free Black people and the enslaved people who built the University,” Watson said. “Despite all that they went through and all that they experienced, all the pain and trauma that they experienced, they still persevered through and built the University and that’s very symbolic of the hierarchy of the way that things are. White supremacy is always on top as this heavy weight on the shoulders of Black and brown people.”
This image was also originally pulled from the solo exhibit, alongside three other photographs.
“There were several, however, we felt ran totally counter to what we were trying to achieve and would detract from the theme, and indeed from the atmosphere of reverence and the sacred that we wanted to create for the families and individuals pictured in the show," the Stone Center said in its Feb. 24 statement.
The photos were also shared and published by The Washington Post prior to the solo exhibit's opening date at the Stone Center without permission, they said in their statement, which is why they say they canceled the exhibit fully.
Watson said in a Feb. 22 email to Joseph Jordan, vice provost for academic and community engagement, that he owns his work and did not license it to UNC. He has not granted anyone exclusive licenses for usage, he said, including the University.
Jordan declined an interview with The Daily Tar Heel.
Censoring Black history at UNC
There is a long standing history at UNC of problematic action toward the community on issues of race, Theodore Shaw, a professor in the UNC School of Law and director for the Center for Civil Rights, said.
"No question that the artist is trying to say something about the University and its relationship and issues with race, which is important," Shaw said.
Danita Mason-Hogans, a local historian and memory worker, said Watson’s photo story touches on many issues and events in the University's history.
“I literally had to hold my breath, I was just so taken by how beautiful his photography was,” Mason-Hogans said. “But also how he was able to capture with his photographs some of the stories of our people, our local Black community and some of the places we hold dear and sacred from the perspective of these under-told stories.”
Watson, she said, was able to show a different perspective on these historical spaces and highlight pieces of the story that often go untold in Chapel Hill.
Although the images will no longer be shown at the Stone Center, Mason-Hogans noted the importance of Watson’s work, no matter where it is shown. Watson has demonstrated through his work, Mason-Hogans said, that his vision is needed and appreciated.
“These are important conversations,” she said. “A lot of times the local Black community is left out of conversations and that’s generative.”
Today, Watson said he is in conversation with other community partners such as the Chapel Hill Public Library and the Orange County Arts Commission to find a new place for his “Tarred Healing” display.
Although the photo story will still be shown in a new location, Watson said he feels as though he was asked to “wear the mask” by leaving out certain photos of his story, and eventually by pulling the exhibit at the Stone Center altogether.
However, Watson will continue to move forward, he said, and stand firm in his decisions by telling his story.
As the issues surrounding racial equity and sensitivity when honoring Black history continue at UNC, the community conversation recalls a line from “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar:
“Beneath our feet, and long the mile; / But let the world dream otherwise, / We wear the mask!”
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