Since I came to UNC-Chapel Hill for graduate school, I’ve watched with hope and excitement as undergraduates have led multiple campaigns to install a plaque on campus that contextualizes the history of the Confederate Monument, more popularly known as Silent Sam.
This year the protests have grown bigger than ever. The largest demonstration occurred directly outside my class as I taught. The event catalyzed a tense but fruitful and necessary conversation among my students about the history of slavery in North Carolina and at the university. Some of my students chose to miss class to join the protest.
The discussion around Silent Sam this semester has also been enriched by student calls to rename Saunders Hall, a building originally named after a founder of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. Students propose the building be renamed Hurston Hall in honor of Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American folklorist, anthropologist and novelist who was an unofficial student at UNC prior to integration.
Renaming Saunders after Hurston deservingly honors an unofficially recognized former UNC student whose work exemplifies the core values of the university. I’d also offer that similarly to the proposed plaque contextualizing Silent Sam, a historical marker could be placed outside Hurston Hall to commemorate the students’ courage and tenacity necessary to change the building’s name and to record the history of the building so that these uglier aspects of the campus’s history are not forgotten.
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All of these events have inspired me as I finish my dissertation, the final section of which connects the history of McCorkle Place, the plaza where Silent Sam stands, with Haiti and the hemispheric legacies of slavery in the Americas. Inspired by these activists, my research has opened my eyes to the rich, sedimented layers of history of this particular plaza, the historical heart of UNC’s campus, and made me understand McCorkle Place as a historical hemispheric crossroads of the Americas.
For example, not far from Silent Sam and Hurston Hall stands the Chapel of the Cross, an Episcopalian church that gave Chapel Hill its very name. In 1977, Pauli Murray – civil rights activist, lawyer, author and the first ordained African-American woman in the Episcopalian church – became the first woman to give the Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross. In the 19th century before the Civil War, Murray’s mixed-race grandmother, Cornelia Smith, attended the very same church with Cornelia’s aunt, Mary Ruffin Smith.
While Mary sat close to the minister, Cornelia sat in the balcony, segregated from her family because she was illegitimate and technically a slave. Cornelia’s father, Sidney Smith, a UNC alumnus and prominent member of North Carolina’s antebellum slave-owning political elite, had impregnated Cornelia’s mother Harriet, the Smith family’s slave and Mary’s personal servant.
After recounting this story and that of her grandfather’s emancipation in her autobiography “Proud Shoes,” Pauli Murray wrote, “It had taken me almost a lifetime to discover that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.”
Because these words still ring true today, I propose that this quotation from “Proud Shoes” serve as an integral part of a new historical marker contextualizing Silent Sam. Like Murray, UNC and North Carolina need to derive strength from all our roots, from recognizing the dignity of those who struggled against slavery and racism as well as the degradation of those perverted by their unjust cruelty. As Murray’s biography and family tree demonstrate so clearly, the lines between the two were so often intimately blurred.
During their lifetimes, neither Hurston nor Murray was accepted to UNC-Chapel Hill because of race. What better way to move forward together today than finally to give Zora Neale Hurston and Pauli Murray their much deserved place on campus?
John D. Ribó is a Ph.D. Candidate in English & Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill.