Moeser Wrong to Rethink Bell Award

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, February 12, 2005

Like so many Chapel Hillians, for many years I knew one fact about Cornelia Phillips Spencer: she was “the woman who rang the bell” to signal the reopening of UNC a few years after the Civil War. Southern history being what it is, I was not surprised to learn that there was more to the story.

The debate over the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award has brought out the best and the worst in UNC Chancellor James Moeser. A former academic himself, somewhere in his heart of hearts Moeser seems to have some sensitivity to the humanistic values of the university. But in his day-to-day life as chancellor, he often must bury that part of himself so that he can properly serve the financial necessities of nouveau academia.

Thus, after much discussion on campus, Moeser came to understand that the actions of Cornelia Phillips Spencer in the years following the Civil War were those of a white supremacist. White supremacy goes beyond mere racism to assert the superiority of the white race and its consequent prerogative to dominate others. “Take up the white man's burden” was Rudyard Kipling's call to his 19th century peers. In Spencer's case the burden was a fierce letter-writing campaign in the cause of maintaining white privilege at UNC followed by some rather earnest bell ringing at the success of her efforts.

In announcing the retirement of the Bell Award, Moeser said he had learned that when Spencer rang the bell "for North Carolina's blacks, the nightmare of racial oppression was returning.” He referred to Spencer's “withering scorn for those University teachers and others sympathetic to the rights of blacks and her apologies for the Ku Klux Klan.” He characterized her as “a University icon… whose published writings on race in Reconstruction politics are deeply repugnant to us today."

A few weeks later, after a private meeting with Spencer's descendants, Moeser had changed his tune. He called for a committee “to consider the creation of an award to honor the outstanding service given to the university by a succession of members of the Phillips, Spencer and Love families." Apparently, Spencer's views will be less deeply repugnant if she is surrounded by family members who were less ardent or perhaps less effective advocates of white supremacy.

Now it turns out that the “outstanding service of the Phillips, Spencer, and Love families” expresses itself in a language that Moeser understands all too well: the one spelled with dollar signs. The Martha and Spencer Love Foundation has threatened to withdraw its substantial financial support from the Center for the Study of the American South unless Moeser reinstates the Bell Award.

Spencer's relations are not alone in understanding that Moeser might be sensitive to financial pressure. One letter-writer opined that the university is “far out of step” and might face a day of reckoning “with the North Carolinians who pay its bills.” There is no way of knowing the extent of financial pressure that was directed at getting Moeser to reverse his position.

Explaining her family's combative reaction, Spencie Love said her great-grandmother's “feelings about race were very typical for the time." This overlooks the Bell Award's titular recognition of a celebration, not a feeling, of white supremacy. Others have argued that Spencer's racism was “more acceptable then than now.” (e.g. Herald, 2/5/05) Acceptable to whom? Certainly not to African-Americans nor to the Republicans Spencer reviled nor to people of conscience in general.

Those who protested the award have made it clear that Spencer was not simply a "woman of her times." She was an active leader of the white supremacy movement during Reconstruction. They point out that regardless of your view of 19th century racism, it is not appropriate to honor its achievements in the present era. When the Bell Award was created, just over a decade old, prevailing standards should have cautioned against honoring a celebration of white supremacy so prominently.

Moeser aspires to lead a world-class institution yet many universities are taking the reexamination of their racist pasts much more seriously. Perhaps most notable in this regard is Brown University's Committee on Slavery and Justice which confronts the history of “an institution whose early benefactors included both slave traders and pioneering abolitionists.” This committee is explicitly charged by Brown's President, Ruth Simmons, with examining the question of slavery and reparations.

This is not the time for Moeser to backpedal on addressing UNC's own problematic past. He should seize the opportunity offered by concerned students, staff, and faculty and establish UNC as a leader in the honest examination of its history and in the reconciliation of historic injustices.


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