On the University of North Carolina’s 225th birthday Friday, Chancellor Carol Folt issued a public apology for the university’s connections to slavery and injustice to African Americans.
“As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I offer our university’s deepest apology for the profound injustices of slavery, our full acknowledgment of the strength of enslaved peoples in the face of their suffering, and our respect and indebtedness to them,” Folt said. “And I reaffirm our university’s commitment to facing squarely and working to right the wrongs of history so they are never again inflicted.”
She said the university must continue to reconcile its past with its present.
Speaking to a crowd at the University Day celebration at Memorial Hall, Folt said that words, though important, are not enough.
“Our apology must lead to purposeful action,” the chancellor said, “and it has to build upon the effort and the sacrifices of so many across the years who fought so hard for much of what we value at Carolina today.”
Folt said there are many people working within the university to increase access and affordability for all students “and to embrace the diversity that is our national heritage.”
Friday’s speech came amid a debate about race on the UNC campus that has gained national attention. In August, Silent Sam, a longtime Confederate statue in a prominent spot at UNC, was pulled down by protesters.
Folt and the UNC-CH Board of Trustees have until Nov. 15 to submit a plan to the UNC system’s Board of Governors for Silent Sam’s “disposition and preservation.” The monument is now being kept in storage.
The university also announced earlier this month that it will change the name on a plaque at Kenan Memorial Stadium to distance the university from William Rand Kenan Sr., who was involved in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898. The plaque on the stadium will be altered to honor William Rand Kenan Jr., Kenan Sr.’s son.
Three years ago, the university’s Board of Trustees voted to rename Saunders Hall, which had been named for William Saunders, a 19th Century Ku Klux Klan leader. The building is now called Carolina Hall.
The empty pedestal that once held Silent Sam still stands at a major entrance to campus off Franklin Street. Folt has said she wants to find a new home for the statue, but not at the university’s “front door.”
That area, McCorkle Place, will in the coming months feature new markers and thresholds that pay tribute to indigenous people who first lived in Chapel Hill and the enslaved who built the campus. Already at McCorkle, there is an Unsung Founders Memorial, a sculpture featuring a black granite tabletop supported by 300 figures. It was a gift of the Class of 2002.
That monument will be repaired with the idea of creating “a space that is respectful and contemplative,” said Jim Leloudis, a history professor who leads the university’s history task force. That group, appointed in 2015, has been working on ways to contextualize campus history by giving a more full and accurate account of it.
That will include the area where Silent Sam stood for more than a century.
Leloudis, speaking at the event, said the university will deploy its considerable research already compiled to develop an exhibit that will teach the history of the monument, “of the era of white supremacy in which it was erected.”
Of 183 named buildings, memorials and spaces on the campus, Leloudis said. Thirty-three are named for people who owned slaves, and 10 are named for political figures and scholars who advocated white supremacy. Also, 23 are named for women, but only five are named for African Americans.
“Each of those places has a story to tell,” Leloudis said. “Some of those stories are sobering, some of them are inspiring, and each and every one of them is enlightening.”
Some wondered Friday whether the apology and the markers were enough, and whether they really would tell the full story.
Maya Little, the history graduate student who faces criminal and honor court charges for pouring ink and blood on Silent Sam earlier this year, tweeted her skepticism in a reply to a news story about University Day:
“Will any of Leloudis’ plaques acknowledge the antiracist activists who have worked tirelessly these last 50 years to bring Silent Sam down and end white supremacy at UNC? Will they acknowledge that UNC refused for 105 years to do anything besides protect Silent Sam?”
Little’s trial on charges of defacing the now-toppled Silent Sam monument begins Monday.