“In the South, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Bill Ferris, the associate director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, quoted this adage from William Faulkner in reference to the ghosts of Southern history. But Ferris could well have been referring to the specter of controversy and the allegations of a racist past that continue to haunt Carolina.
Representatives of the University and the Chapel Hill community debated UNC’s perspective on its Reconstruction years in October in a two-day symposium sparked by a call to discontinue naming a distinguished women’s award for Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Two months later, Chancellor James Moeser decided to retire the award, which had been given to 12 women since 1994.
Moeser concluded that Spencer – who generally has been regarded with reverence in Carolina’s history – acted against the interests of black people in the campaign to reopen the University in 1875.
“As someone said, we now have an award with an asterisk by its name,” Moeser wrote in December to participants in the symposium.
Moeser also has asked Harry Watson, history professor and director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, to explore the feasibility of a Web-based history that would address, among other things, less-proud moments in the University’s past and the checkered histories of some of its famous people from the past. Watson and Joseph Jordan, director of UNC’s Stone Center for Black Culture and History, are to look at the possibility of some regularly held forum on campus to address these issues.
“Based on the facts presented by several historians at the symposium, I have concluded that very few of us understood the full meaning of Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s ringing the bell in South Building. It expressed both her deep love of the University and her joy that the University’s Republican-installed administration, sympathetic to the rights of newly freed blacks, was long gone and a Democratic legislature had agreed to reopen UNC. Reconstruction was over.
“For North Carolina’s blacks, the nightmare of racial oppression was returning and would lead to complete disenfranchisement by 1900. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone who helped create the Bell Award during the Bicentennial Observance had read Mrs. Spencer’s published writings during Reconstruction – her withering scorn for those University teachers and others sympathetic to the rights of blacks and her apologies for the Ku Klux Klan. So we have a historical figure – a University icon – who can evoke sympathy for what she lived through and approval for some things she advocated (education for women) but whose published writings on race in Reconstruction politics are deeply repugnant to us today.”
Spencer’s familiar reputation as a champion of the reopening of the University after the Civil War has been challenged by those who say her first priority was keeping it closed as long as Republicans were in charge.
Though not educated at the University, Spencer was from a highly educated family. She was a prolific writer and education advocate, and her primary claim to fame is that she climbed into the South Building belfry to ring the bell when the University reopened after being shut down for five years under a Republican administration, which had taken it over at the end of the Civil War.
Some of her writing suggests that she worked to cut UNC’s state funding and to discourage prominent families from sending their sons to Chapel Hill as a means of choking the University during the Republican reign.
Two years ago, a graduate student, Yonni Chapman, tried to raise awareness of Spencer’s past at the time of the award presentation. He repeated that last year and drew support from distinguished African-American faculty, black student leaders, local NAACP leaders, the chair of women’s studies and the head of the group that has pressed the administration for reforms for the University’s housekeepers and other workers.
In naming Watson to explore deeper into the University’s history, Moeser picked someone who is squarely at odds with Chapman’s view of Spencer. In a paper presented at the forum, Watson acknowledged that Spencer attacked the Republicans relentlessly in her writing and that she “refused to identify with the worst forms of racial oppression or sectional extremism, but she also refused to admit the necessity for any fundamental transformation of the state or its institutions.”
But, he went on, “Let me be plain: the leaders of the protest against Mrs. Spencer and the Bell Award have badly misstated the facts. In truth, neither Cornelia Phillips Spencer nor her Conservative allies ever closed or conspired to close The University of North Carolina. Both closures were ordered by their mortal enemies in the Republican Party. And the closures were not undertaken for reasons of white supremacy because the Reconstruction University made no serious challenge to white supremacy. Instead, the University closed because it simply had no money.
“In the fall of 1871, roughly nine months after the University’s second closure, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Republican Board of Trustees bowed to Mrs. Spencer’s influence and approached her for a compromise plan to reopen the University on a bipartisan basis. Spencer would have none of it. Rather than reopen the University with the enemy still in charge, she preferred to keep it closed until they surrendered entirely. To my knowledge, this was the closest she ever came to supporting the closure of the University. The Republican emissary left disappointed and talk of compromise died away.”
Spencie Love is Spencer’s great-granddaughter. An accomplished historian who has worked in Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program, Love has researched her famous relative. “I think it’s wrong for them to abolish the award,” she said. “I think it’s unfair because I think her contributions outweigh her racial views. I think she was like most people of the time. I think she’s been turned into a scapegoat.
“Judging people out of context is not fair. You don’t destroy monuments – you leave them there so people can learn. You go forward and create new monuments and awards, but you let the old ones stand.”
Jim Leloudis ’77, an associate professor of history and director of the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, told the symposium, “This University’s history is anything but simple. It’s contested, contentious and still full of significance for our time.”
The symposium panel, composed of students, professors, administrators and University employees, debated the proper steps to acknowledge parts of UNC’s legacy in a way that encourages discussion and full disclosure. Some panelists argued the University should modify plaques on many campus buildings to reveal the racist legacies of their honoraries.
Watson cautioned against turning markers on campus buildings into indictments of the people for whom the buildings are named. He said while UNC should strive for historical accuracy, such efforts should not create a needless distraction from the values Carolina stands for in the present and the future.
“UNC’s responsibility is to be as honest and accurate as possible and to use its past to educate the state and the nation (and itself) to the realities and complexities of our history,” Watson said.
Anticipating questions about whether the retirement of the Bell Award was a prelude to changing the names of buildings named for people who were slaveholders or otherwise showed racial intolerance, Moeser said in December that UNC would not “be changing the names of other buildings and monuments,” including that of the dormitory that opened in 1924 bearing Spencer’s name.
Watson also cited the University’s complicity in slavery as a standing warning against moral complacency. Watson leads the Steering Committee to Remember Reconstruction at Carolina and is director of the Center of the Study of the American South.
Deb McCown, a senior from Pennsylvania and associate editor of the Carolina Review, a conservative campus publication, argued that the contributions of the men and women who molded the University’s history in the 1800s should be considered in light of the times in which they lived. Specifically, slaveholding was a practice in which many landowners of the time took part and was not considered an obvious moral wrong.
“You would discredit the contributions of all the founding fathers of America because of the times in which they lived,” McCown said. “The view that only narrow, modern, specific interpretations of history [should be accepted] is silly.”
McCown called on the University to remember events in its history, even those that make people uncomfortable.
“The significance of reminding ourselves about the past is that it gives us reason to discuss our past,” McCown said.
Dave Brannigan, a UNC grounds worker, said the point of these discussions was not to chip away at the school’s history but to add to it. He called for some recognition of the lesser-known figures who have contributed to the UNC’s legacy.
“On this campus, this built-in environment excludes ideas because it does not reflect the accomplishments of working-class people,” Brannigan said. “For example, the tax burden for much of the University’s current expansion falls on the lower classes.”
Chapman claims Spencer was as responsible for closing the school’s doors after a Republican administration took over following the Civil War as she was for ringing the bell to reopen it five years later.
Chapman was pleased the discussion moved beyond blaming Spencer to explore the broader framework of the way the University presents its sometimes troubled history.
“Lots of social justice movements have led the University to become a more social, democratic institution,” Chapman said.
The Bell award recognized a woman who has made outstanding contributions to the University. Recipients since its inception in 1994 were were Madeline Levine, Ida Howell Friday ’47 (MPH), Jane Brown, Mary N. Morrow ’50 (MA), Anne W. Cates ’53, Judith Welch Wegner, Anne Craig Barnes, Mary Turner Lane ’53 (MED), Anne Ellen Queen, Shirley Friedlander Weiss ’58 (MRP), Norma Connell Berryhill ’25, and Gladys Hall Coates.