Painful legacy: US academy confronts slave-holding past

February 26, 2011

On the northern edge of the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a statue of a Confederate soldier stands sentry, rifle at the ready. Given to the university in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the statue, known as “Silent Sam”, commemorates its 321 alumni who died fighting for the slave-holding South in the US Civil War.

“For most of the white students, images of the Confederacy don’t really hit them very hard,” said Timothy McMillan, professor of African and Afro-American studies at Chapel Hill. “But for a lot of black people, especially in the South, Confederate flags and Confederate memorials often say: ‘You are not welcome here.’”

The more Professor McMillan looked around the campus, the more reminders of the country’s slave-holding past he found.

Along with an increasing number of US universities, North Carolina has started to confront this legacy.

When a dormitory named after a slave owner was expanded, the new wing was named after a slave. And now, next to Silent Sam, there is a monument called the Unsung Founders Memorial, a large disc supported by 300 figures of “people of color, bond and free” who helped to build the university.

Interest in the US academy’s complicity in the slave trade led to Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies, an unprecedented international conference held earlier this month at Emory University in Atlanta.

The conference included scholars and administrators from universities around the world discussing the involvement of their institutions in slavery.

Among the reasons for the sudden interest in the subject, conference organisers said, was the “truth and reconciliation” movement.

“Around the world you see an explosion of retrospective-justice initiatives,” said James Campbell, a historian at Stanford University who has taught in South Africa.“The way in which most of us understand how human beings are constituted suggests that terrible things can happen and they don’t necessarily go away unless you come up with ways to face them.”

“There is a marketing component,” acknowledged Professor McMillan, who said North Carolina’s admissions office often asks him to lead black prospective students on black history tours of the institution.

The conference organisers said the topic also holds lessons for ¬present-day universities by serving as a stark reminder of the need for independence from powerful patrons and prevailing opinion.

Today, said Alfred Brophy, professor of law at North Carolina, universities are often identified with progressive social movements. But that is really a 20th-century phenomenon: before then, “universities were connected very closely to the interests of the powerful”.

This holds an important lesson for the present day, Professor Brophy said: “It is problematic when scholarship and research are driven by the interests of people with money.”

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