Chancellor James Moeser has told members of Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s family that he wants a campus committee to study the need for a new UNC award to honor women – an award that he says could be named to “honor the outstanding service given to the University by a succession of members of the Phillips, Spencer and Love families.”
Moeser met with two of Spencer’s great-grandchildren in January to try to smooth hurt feelings caused by his decision in December to abolish the Cornelia Phillip Spencer Award because of perceptions that Spencer – long revered as the woman who sparked the movement to reopen the University after the Civil War – had acted on racist tendencies to stymie UNC’s post-war Republican leadership. Charles E. Love of Charlotte, head of the foundation named for his parents; and his sister Spencie Love, a historian and expert on the family’s deep involvement with the University, has asked Moeser to remove their great-grandmother’s name from Spencer Residence Hall and to redirect money the foundation had given for a new home for several prestigious Southern studies programs.
Following the meeting, Moeser said the funding for the programs was safe. He reiterated that the first dorm built at Carolina for women would continue to bear Spencer’s name.
That meeting included William Friday ’48 (LLB), president emeritus of the UNC System; history faculty members Bill Ferris and Harry Watson; Bernadette Gray-Little, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Professor Madeline Levine, the most recent Bell Award recipient.
Moeser will set up a committee to be chaired by journalism Professor Jane Brown, a recipient of the decade-old Bell Award. Spencie Love will be on the committee.
“I regret the pain that this controversy has caused you and your family,” Moeser wrote in the letter. “The last thing we wanted to do in ending the Bell Award was to condemn Cornelia Phillips Spencer or to erase her from our past. The decision was one of practicality because a number of outstanding women on campus said they would not accept the award.”
The move to abolish the award set off a hot debate on campus and in the letters columns of Triangle newspapers, most of which decried the decision as an unnecessary revision of history.
The debate about the award, given since 1994 for outstanding service to UNC by women, included speculation that the names of buildings, honors and professorships bearing the names of people with controversies in their biographies might be considered for removal. Moeser said the dorm name was not discussed in the meeting with the Loves.
“We’re not going to remove any names from any buildings,” he said in an interview.
Moeser said he thinks that Cornelia Phillips Spencer “was a great woman” and that the issue is “not something that’s simply understood.”
But, he said, to keep the award would have “constantly put her on trial and attack.”
Cornelia Spencer’s father and brother were on the UNC faculty. Her brother, Samuel Phillips, was a appointed a solicitor general by President U.S. Grant. Her grandson, James Spencer Love, founded the business that became Burlington Industries, at one time the world’s largest textile manufacturing company; and her granddaughter, Cornelia Spencer Love, was a longtime community activist in Chapel Hill.
The Love Foundation recently gave funds to help with the renovation of a house on Franklin Street as headquarters for the Center for the Study of the American South, the Southern Oral History Program and other programs. Cornelia Phillips Spencer’s son-in-law, James Lee Love, built the house, and she once lived in it.
Among the Love Foundation’s beneficiaries is the General Alumni Association. An endowment covers the cost of the GAA’s annual Old Students Club luncheon and some of the costs of producing the Alumni Directory.