In the widening wake of Chancellor James Moeser’s cancellation of an award named for Cornelia Phillips Spencer, Spencer’s heirs have asked the University to remove her name from the dorm named for her in 1927.
Family members also have asked that money given recently by the Martha and Spencer Love Foundation for the restoration of the new quarters for UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South and other Southern studies programs be redirected and that the family’s ties to the center be severed.
In a letter to Moeser dated Jan. 1, foundation Chair Charles E. Love wrote that “you have offered insubstantial reasons for making your decision.”
Late last year, following a symposium on UNC and the Reconstruction years that examined charges that Spencer espoused racist views at the time of the University’s closing in 1870, Moeser canceled the 13-year-old Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award for distinguished women.
The award was so named because Spencer always has been known as the woman who rang the South Building bell to celebrate the reopening in 1875. But in recent years, her reputation as a champion of the reopening has been challenged by those who say her first priority was keeping it closed as long as Republicans ran UNC during Reconstruction.
Some of the writing of Spencer, an education advocate and prolific writer published statewide, 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 Republican reign.
Moeser took the action in part, he said, because of “her withering scorn for those University teachers and others sympathetic to the rights of blacks and her apologies for the Ku Klux Klan.” He directed Harry Watson, history professor and director of the Center for the Study of the American South, to study the feasibility of a Web-based tool that would address less-proud moments in UNC’s past, including prominent people with questionable reputations. Moeser said that the University would not, however, re-name buildings in the process.
Love wrote to the chancellor, “Furthermore, you are inconsistent in not taking similar action regarding other historical icons. As a result, you’ve established an irresponsible precedent regarding how a university deals with issues related to historical revisionism.”
The Love Foundation had given money toward renovation of a Franklin Street house in which Spencer once lived for use as the home of the renowned Center for the Study of the American South; the Southern Oral History Program; the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life; and the journal Southern Cultures.
Love said the money should be redirected to augment existing endowed scholarships at the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem or to set up a new scholarship for female students at Chapel Hill in the name of his late aunt, Cornelia Spencer Love.
Charles Love’s father, James Spencer Love, namesake of the family foundation, started a textile business in Burlington in 1922 that became Burlington Industries, at one time the world’s largest textile manufacturing company.
Charles Love’s sister, Spencie Love, a Chapel Hill resident and a professional historian, has researched her famous great-grandmother. Spencie Love has acknowledged that Spencer held less-than-enlightened racial views typical of white people in her time, but she is against abolishing the award. “I think it’s unfair because I think her contributions outweigh her racial views,” Love said recently. “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.”
A meeting has been scheduled for Jan. 17 among Moeser, members of the Love family and other UNC leaders. Moeser said he didn’t want to comment on the Love letter until after the meeting.
Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s father was a professor at UNC, and her brother taught at UNC and Harvard. The first women’s dorm at Carolina was finished in 1924 and named for Spencer in 1927 after members of the class of 1888 proposed, according to UNC building records, that the dorm be named for the first woman to receive a doctor of laws degree from a Southern institution. Although, as a woman, she was not allowed to attend UNC in her younger days, Spencer received an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1895.
Related story: Moeser Retires Award Named for Spencer