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'Tarred Healing' debuts at National Civil Rights Museum nearly a year after UNC pulled the display


Cornell Watson, the photographer behind "Tarred Healing," poses for a portrait in his Durham office on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. "Tarred Healing" is a photo story reflecting on Black history in Chapel Hill and at UNC. 

Five years after purchasing his first camera to take pictures of his daughter, Cornell Watson celebrated the opening of his exhibit “Tarred Healing” at the National Civil Rights Museum. 

“It feels really surreal and very gratifying,” Watson said. 

The exhibit opened at the Memphis, Tennessee museum on Jan. 16 and is running until March 20. 

Noelle Trent, the museum’s director of interpretation, collections and education, said that the museum first learned of Watson’s story through national media.   

“Tarred Healing reflects the complex and fraught process of racial reconciliation beyond the removal of Confederate symbols on campuses throughout the country," she said in a statement. "Watson’s vivid photography illustrates the long arc toward justice."       

'Disagreements over content and scope'     

A lifelong Tar Heel fan, Watson was offered an artist residency in June 2021 at UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History to create an exhibit honoring Black history through photographing places on campus that are relevant to the University's racial past.   

After spending six months curating the exhibit and receiving national attention, including a feature in The Washington Post, The Stone Center pulled the project.       

"Disagreements over content and scope" were reasons the Center cited for dismissing the project in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel last February. 

Twelve days after the Center originally pulled the exhibit, Watson received an email a day before the project was scheduled to open, notifying him that the display was in fact going to premiere. This time, the exhibit would feature all of Watson’s photographs.     

The email said that the Center chose to move forward with the showcase to honor those involved in the project. But, in an email to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Watson said that he did not authorize the use of his images. 

The exhibit was canceled for the final time.   

Watson said that while conflict with the University was the most challenging part of his journey with the exhibit, he does not have any regrets about making sure the complete story was featured in “Tarred Healing.” He does not think there can be true reconciliation without reckoning with all parts of history.   

'There are these types of stories all across America'  

Though Watson faced pushback from some University leaders, many community members and students — some of whom were featured in the project — rose up in support of his work.    

“When you do things the right way, when you are connected with the community that you are creating something about, they will stand behind you in those turbulent times,” he said. “It was really gratifying to have the Black community of Chapel Hill stand behind this and really kind of become family.”

One of the students who assisted Watson in shooting the project was Kayden Hunt, a journalism student at UNC. She said that the experience showed her that photojournalism could capture more than just trauma and can help open others' minds to new perspectives.  

Hunt said that the project was important because it shows that the history of marginalized communities can not be erased and that their voices can not be silenced.   

“My ancestors built this school, and not having that recognition — living in residence halls where that's not shown or that's not appreciated — is terrifying,” she said. “It's scary going into things and being like, ‘Oh, this building is based off of someone who would have hated to see me walk through the halls.’ But, I honestly see that as a thing of empowerment. I'm going to walk through these halls and I'm going to do it with my head held high.”    

Cornell Watson and Kayden Hunt pictured behind the scenes of a photo honoring the Rogers Eubanks Community in fall 2021. Photo courtesy of Kayden Hunt. 

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When shooting “Tarred Healing,” Watson focused on sacred and important spaces for the Black community in Chapel Hill, along with the parallels between student demonstrations happening at the time and the Civil Rights Movement.  

“This story isn't unique to the Black community at Chapel Hill. There are these types of stories all across America,” he said. “There are stories of environmental injustice in all parts of the country. There are stories of systems of oppression that need to be torn down. There are stories where Black people have achieved things in spite of all of these things that try to prevent them from achieving things.”

'Your work has the opportunity to inspire people

Watson's exhibit features a replica of Silent Sam’s base, a projection of the front page of The Daily Tar Heel when the project was initially pulled, among other displays.       

“My hope is that people can see themselves in the work, see all the things that we achieve and can accomplish in spite of all of the barriers that we face and the oppression that we face,” Watson said. “I also hope that people see that there is still a lot of work that's left to be done, and I hope people look within themselves to figure out what part they play in taking down some of these institutions that continue to cause harm and create barriers.”    

Watson continues to create and tell stories about the Black experience. He said that photography is important because it shines a light on truth and that people need to continue to tell these stories.

“Your work has the opportunity to inspire people, to change, to look at things differently and make a positive impact in the world and that can all start from the blink of a shutter on a camera,” he said. “

Editor's Note: Kayden Hunt is a former staff member of The Daily Tar Heel.


Lauren Rhodes

Lauren Rhodes is a 2023-2024 assistant university editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer for the university desk. Lauren is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and political science with a minor in politics, philosophy and economics. 

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