Monday, October 11, 2004

Still remembering Reconstruction

Following Jim Leloudis' narrative of UNC's Reconstruction history, Yonni Chapman made a compelling plea for "seeking historical truth at UNC." He's not asking to tear down the statue of Silent Sam, but rather to supplement the language it speaks:

Let us now look at the construction of memory at UNC. This is a process that reflects our values as well as historical facts. The question facing us today is whether we are going to demand honesty, no matter how painful. As we begin to reassess our history, and to think about making changes in the commemorative landscape, we should be clear on one thing: the movement for historical truth has nothing to do with censoring history. This is a straw man, or woman. It is because UNC’s history is already censored that we are here today.

I love the images Yonni gives us as he reenvisions the campus:

Imagine, if you will, a campus transformed by a sense of social justice. Let’s walk across Franklin Street and enter the campus by Battle-Vance-Pettigrew. The first thing we would see is a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King reaching out to us to help “save the soul of America.” As we walk on, past Silent Sam, we would come to the statue in front of the Alumni Building honoring UNC’s Unsung Founders, the black workers, slave and free, who built Old East and other university buildings. Approaching Saunders Hall we would note a plaque stating that Saunders led the KKK during Reconstruction and served on the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees at the time of the reopening. The plaque would acknowledge and repudiate the university’s participation in white supremacy and would invite all to enter Saunders Hall and view the permanent exhibit discussing the university’s role in slavery, the overthrow of Reconstruction, and the making of the Jim Crow state. Across the quad in Murphy we would visit a comparable display about the impact of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and other democratic social movements on UNC. Upon entering Lenoir, we would see a plaque honoring the black workers and students who participated in the cafeteria workers strike of 1969. Featured prominently would be the two women who led that strike, Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks. Finally, approaching Davis Library, we would stop and read the words engraved on a black obelisk, written by the “Black Bard of Chapel Hill,” slave poet, George Moses Horton, who published the first book by an African American in the South in 1829. As we continued our walk around the campus, we would notice that the portraits and artwork on the walls honored the heritage and contributions of all those who were formerly limited and denied by the University of North Carolina. Their faces next to the faces of white leaders would send a clear message that UNC truly intends to become the university of all the people.

A campus with reminders like this would send a powerful message. It is the same message that Professor Leloudis' history brings us: our history was not inevitable. There were other directions it could have taken. Indeed, there are other directions it did take that we have, collectively, chosen to forget.

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