Examining our history

Chancellor Carol L. Folt said she is proud of the new exhibit in Carolina Hall displaying the history of how the building was named and then renamed because it is a starting point for telling the full story of Carolina’s history.

The exhibit, which opened Nov. 11, was conceived and curated by the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History. Folt appointed the group in September 2015 to ensure all members of the campus community have the opportunity to learn about Carolina’s history, values and contributions to society.

The exhibit is the first example of the comprehensive approach to examine campus history that the University Board of Trustees called for when they voted to rename Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall in May 2015.

“When people engage with this exhibit, they’ll learn to ask questions,” Folt said. “They’ll start to appreciate the complex nature of history. It will stimulate discussion and will involve prospective students and existing students in a new way with the history of this institution.”

The three co-chairs of the history task force – James Leloudis, professor of history, associate dean for Honors Carolina and director of the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence; Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs; and Amy Locklear Hertel, director of the American Indian Center and clinical assistant professor of Social Work – said their charge from the chancellor was to teach an honest and thoughtful account of Carolina’s history that will encourage people to respectfully engage in difficult dialogues.

Over the past year, the history task force, which includes University historian Cecelia Moore, has worked in partnership with North Carolina history scholars, campus and community advisory groups, and other stakeholders.

Leloudis said the intent of the permanent exhibit is to teach about a critical era in the history of this state, this region and this University.

Leloudis said the history task force tried to create an exhibit that did not focus on William Saunders, but used him as an entrée into the broader history that encompasses the period from the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War, through the period Saunders was an active leader of the Ku Klux Klan, to the University trustees’ decision to honor Saunders by naming a new building after him in the 1920s.

“One of the things that people looking at this exhibit will see is that there was an alternative path.” Leloudis said. “There were North Carolinians very much dedicated to building a multi-racial democracy in this state, and ultimately they were defeated by the forces of white supremacy.

“Recovering that moment can be very powerful in the present. It expands our imagination and our capacity to imagine and create a more inclusive and a more just future for this university and for the state of North Carolina and for the South and the nation as well.”

Crisp said the process has revealed to him how important it is, as the University moves toward the future, to understand the historical context on which it was built.

“My primary hope is that it will awaken an appetite for learning more about the history of this place, which encompasses its people – the faculty, the students, the staff who have all labored here to make this place as great as it is,” Crisp said. “There is so much here to learn about and we hope this will start people down that path.”

Hertel said it is also important to remember that there was a history here before the University began.

“The history of the University began way before the university held its first class and there were people who lived on this land prior to that time and we want to make sure, as we are telling the history of this space, we are telling the true history of all the people who occupied this space over time.”

Folt said the work of the history task force will continue with new projects, including a curatorial plan for McCorkle Place; an inventory of historic buildings, monuments, and memorials; and an online orientation program on University history.

“This isn’t the end,” Folt said. “This is the beginning of our work to contextualize Carolina’s history and I am so excited because a broader, more inclusive way of telling our history absolutely leads to a broader, more inclusive future.”

The exhibit is open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and is located at south entrance to Carolina Hall.

Story Gary Moss, University Gazette
Video by Rob Holliday, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published November 16, 2016