Research

Race, research and reckoning

Panelists at the University’s first Race, Racism and Racial Equity symposium discuss how campus buildings, property and even historical archives came at the price of racial exploitation.

Panelists at the R3 symposium were, clockwise from top left, Donna Nixon, Brandon Bayne, Laura Hart, Sonoe Nakasone and James Leloudis.
Panelists at the R3 symposium were, clockwise from top left, Donna Nixon, Brandon Bayne, Laura Hart, Sonoe Nakasone and James Leloudis.

More than 2,200 people tuned in Thursday, Sept. 10, for the 90-minute Race, Racism and Racial Equity online symposium highlighting research by Carolina scholars on how people of color were historically exploited for the University’s benefit.

“The Historical Exploitation of Black and Brown Bodies at UNC: Learning from the Past to Change the Present” is the first in a series of virtual R3 events, co-hosted by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Jordan Institute for Families and the School of Social Work’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The symposium was co-convened by Allison De Marco, advanced research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and Gretchen C. Bellamy, senior director for education, operations and initiatives in the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion. Travis Albritton, the School of Social Work’s assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion, moderated the first session.

The R3 series is designed to provide context on the state of race nationally and locally, complementing the work of the University’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward.

Sibby Anderson-Thompkins

Sibby Anderson-Thompkins (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“Action must be informed by the lived experiences of Black, indigenous and people of color, and we must tell those untold stories, these untold truths,” said Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, special adviser to the chancellor and provost for equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer. “This session will play a crucial part in our understanding of our history and our past and clear the way for our future.”

History professor, co-chair of the history commission and panelist James Leloudis agreed. “The first step toward racial reconciliation and healing is to create a more complete and accurate narrative,” he said.

Learning from history

Leloudis and another researcher on the panel focused on the University’s foundation on a legacy of slavery and exploitation, on land originally inhabited by indigenous people.

Leloudis pointed to the Trustees Monument at Person Hall, listing the names of University founders who enslaved more than 2,000 Black men, women and children, and a list of the enslaved men who built Gerrard Hall and “so much of the antebellum University.”

“The University was not only located in but was intrinsically of the slaveholding society, political system and economic system. The wealth and the political power that those trustees had at their disposal derived from the forced labor of enslaved people,” Leloudis said. Because the University didn’t receive public appropriations until after the Civil War, it relied on “the wealth created by slavery” for both philanthropy and tuition and even profited from direct involvement in the domestic slave trade, he said.

As proof, Leloudis presented correspondence between two longtime trustees about the sale of an unclaimed estate for the benefit of the University. The “block of property” identified by lawyer and judge Matthias Manly was the estate of a free Black man. The deceased man’s enslaved daughter and granddaughter not only couldn’t inherit the property he left to them but were considered part of the unclaimed estate themselves. “Take possession and sell,” instructed his brother, Charles Manly, governor of North Carolina (1849-51). Manly Residence Hall bears the name of the brothers.

Associate professor Brandon Bayne, director of undergraduate studies in the College of Arts & Sciences’ religious studies department, showed documentation not only that the University’s Rizzo and Friday Centers are built on a former plantation, a 221-acre gift from the Barbee family, but also that brochures and historical markers gloss over the property’s past use. The graves of more than 100 enslaved people are unmarked and unacknowledged in the historical record, he said.

“Plantation” is a word “cloaked in some sort of nostalgia,” said Bayne, who titled his presentation “Enslaving Benefactors, Exploited Bodies, Erased Lives.” Instead, these properties should be described as “labor camps, where people were coerced to work on behalf of white enslavers.”

Donna Nixon displayed the football tickets marked for the “colored entrance” that the University gave to the first Black students admitted to the law school.

Donna Nixon displayed the football tickets marked for the “colored entrance” that the University gave to the first Black students admitted to the law school. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Discrimination on campus

The research of panelist Donna Nixon, electronic resources librarian and clinical assistant professor of law in the School of Law, focuses on the successful legal fight by five Black men to integrate the University in 1951. The court case, won by the lawyers of the NAACP, was a prelude to 1954’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Nixon’s documentation of the University’s refusal to admit the men included written instructions from the UNC System president to send any Black applicant a form letter directing them to apply to N.C. Central University law school instead. Even after the Black men were admitted, the University gave them football tickets in the “colored” section of Kenan Stadium instead of with their fellow students. Nixon displayed the football tickets marked for the “colored entrance” that one of the men donated to the University archives.

“Through the library’s oral history collection, I was able to hear three of the men tell their stories in their own voices,” Nixon said. “Being the first was a traumatic and scarring experience.”

Archival reparations

Two of the panelists showed how even historical archives can be viewed as exploitative. While the extensive records from plantations, donated by the descendants of their white owners, can be invaluable to researchers, they come at a high emotional price to the descendants of the enslaved, said Laura Hart, technical services archivist in Wilson Special Collections Library.

“They are hard to look at,” said Hart of lists describing the marketable qualities (“prime”) and prices of enslaved people. And for those who choose to look, to find out who their ancestors were, access to the records can be difficult. Hart called for the University to make reparations for its plantation collections.

The University should “make it possible to give back to the Black community whose ancestors are documented in our archives,” she said. “The University needs to do this because Black lives matter, and historical Black lives matter, too.”

Panelist Sonoe Nakasone, a University archivist who works on the Mellon Foundation-funded Community Driven Archives project, said she also believed in reparations.

“To me, reparations doesn’t only mean money,” she said. “It also means education, safety, health, housing, generational wealth and it means empowerment, not exploitation, by the historic record.”

While the extensive records from plantations, donated by the descendants of their white owners, can be invaluable to researchers, they come at a high emotional price to the descendants of the enslaved, said Laura Hart.

While the extensive records from plantations, donated by the descendants of their white owners, can be invaluable to researchers, they come at a high emotional price to the descendants of the enslaved, said Laura Hart. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

‘Cancel culture’

Other recommendations from the panelists included more digitization, transcription and reframing of plantation records to make them available to people outside the academic community. There should also be more scholarship about the antebellum period from different perspectives.

“We hear the criticism that we are engaged in ‘cancel culture,’” Leloudis said. “What we are in fact involved in is correcting the original ‘cancel culture,’ which has purposely silenced so much of our history.”

This sentiment echoed remarks from University leadership in introducing the symposium.

“At Carolina, we must face our own history. That includes racial injustice,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, adding that the series will “highlight our world-renowned scholars as we reckon with our history.”

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin agreed. “Now is the time for the UNC community to take action,” he said. “This investment of time and resources requires everyone on our campus to acknowledge and learn from the past while focusing on the resiliency of the University.”