In opening remarks last week at a conference studying the role of slavery on university campuses worldwide, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he’s proud of work being done by a University commission that has recommended removing names from campus buildings of people with ties to white supremacy, the Confederacy or slavery.
“I wanted this commission to look at our past with a lens of how we move forward together as a campus into the future,” Guskiewicz said of the Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward, which was created in 2019 to explore, engage and teach the University’s history with race, including researching the backgrounds of namesakes of campus buildings and making recommendations to remove any names.
This year’s Universities Studying Slavery conference, titled “At This Place: History, Race and a Way Forward,” was hosted by UNC and the commission, which provides recommendations to the chancellor on how the University community should reckon with its past, including focusing on archives, history, and curriculum development and teaching. Conference presenters represented institutions from as close by as Duke University and as far away as the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota, Colombia.
Guskiewicz kicked off the opening plenary session of the Universities Studying Slavery conference, which ran from March 16 through March 18 and had more than 360 people worldwide registered to attend. Universities Studying Slavery is a consortium of more than 90 institutions of higher learning in the U.S., Canada, Colombia, Scotland, Ireland and England, all of which are studying the role slavery played on campuses. He commended commission members for their work “to uncover the complex backgrounds of namesakes on our campus buildings and landscapes,” and added, “that’s just part of what the commission has done.”
He said a highlight for him occurred last year when UNC held a dedication ceremony renaming the former Carr Building after Henry Owl ’29 (MA) and Aycock Residence Hall after Hortense McClinton. Owl was the first Native American and student of color to graduate from Carolina. In 1966, McClinton became the first tenured Black professor at UNC.
In 1900, trustees named the Carr Building in honor of Julian Shakespeare Carr (class of 1866), who was a trustee from 1977 until his death in 1924. He had leadership roles in the General Alumni Association and was GAA president from 1912 to 1917. According to the commission, Carr provided financial underwriting for the Democratic Party’s white supremacy campaign of 1898, used violence to suppress Black people’s claims to equal citizenship and worked to legitimize the regime of Jim Crow. Trustees named Aycock Residence Hall in 1928 to honor Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock (class of 1880). According to the commission, Aycock used violence to terrorize Black voters and their white allies, campaigned for governor in 1900 on a platform of white supremacy and Black disenfranchisement, and embraced white supremacy as the guiding principle of his political career.
The Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward is co-chaired by Jim Leloudis ’78 (’89 PhD), a Carolina history professor and director of the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, and Patricia Parker, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, the Ruel W. Tyson Distinguished Professor of humanities and a professor in the department of communication.
“An honest rendering of our past shouldn’t be divisive or controversial but seen as a core part of our mission as universities to seek truth and bring knowledge to light,” Guskiewicz said. “It is fundamental to who we are. As Dr. Parker often says, it’s necessary work.”
After the commission recommended to Guskiewicz several names be removed from UNC buildings because of their ties to white supremacy, the UNC Board of Trustees in 2020 voted to remove Aycock’s and Carr’s names from campus buildings, as well as Josephus Daniels (class of 1885) from the Daniels Building, home to Student Stores. In 2021 and 2022, the commission submitted more names to Guskiewcz to consider for removal, including William Waightstill Avery (class of 1837), Kemp Plummer Battle (class of 1849) and James Johnston Pettigrew (class of 1849).
Guskiewicz said the University is continuing the work on the Unsung Founders Memorial, a gift from the class of 2002 to honor the people of color enslaved and free who helped build the University, to understand how enslaved people helped to construct Carolina’s original classrooms, presidential halls and administrative offices. “And we’re working to forever honor those enslaved people and their families,” he said. “So I’m grateful to every member of this commission for their work over the last three and a half years to fulfill their mission to explore, engage and teach the University’s history with grace.”
During a question and answer session, Guskiewicz said he’s “doing a little additional work” on the names submitted to him for removal and “will push it forward to the trustees very soon. Ultimately it’s their decision to either accept or not accept that recommendation from me with the work of the commission and the ad hoc committee,” he said.
Former chancellor James Moeser, who served from 2000 to 2008, in a comment that drew applause from the audience, said the University’s alumni, faculty and community members should support Guskiewicz when he presents his recommendation on the removal of additional names to the Board of Trustees.
“I worry that the chancellor’s recommendations to the board will be turned down unless alumni and community members speak up,” Moeser said. “I think that’s really important. It’s not only alumni of color or Indigenous representation, but it’s majority alumni as well. I feel very strongly about that, and I commend the chancellor for creating this commission. He’s doing the right thing, … but we just have to mobilize to be more effective.”
Parker said in an interview with the Carolina Alumni Review the support is “vitally important. He [Moeser] tapped into something that we’ve talked about as part of the commission’s work — engaging those descendant communities but also all communities that care about this work. This is a public university. As a strategy, the way he put it I think is very compelling.”
Leloudis said the commission has been “buoyed by the positive response” members have received from alumni over the past three years. In the 1920s and 1930s, the University was doing a version of this work across the region, he said in an interview.
The University “was a kind of a beacon for people, during the worst days of Jim Crow, who imagined a different kind of future,” Leloudis said. “It’s fair to say that most of the alumni we’ve heard from are proud of that history and proud of the University carrying that history forward in this moment in time. That’s our heritage. That’s our legacy. That’s who we are, and we’ve had that kind of courage historically.”
— Laurie D. Willis ’86