Unsung Founders discussion

Guest Post by Yonni Chapman

I want to make sure everyone knows about the panel/debate/discussion on UNC's Unsung Founders Memorial this Wednesday, Hanes Art Center 121, 5-7pm.

Criticism has now pushed to the surface and gained momentum along the same lines that was noted here on OrangePolitics and elsewhere at the time of the dedication--the memorial to slaves is long overdue and welcome, but the implementation is pathetic. It pacifies and "midgitizes" the contribution of black workers. The biggest problem is that, once again, white people spoke for black people, and got it wrong. The descendants--actual and figurative (black campus workers)--were not consulted during the planning process. One or two black students were involved, but everyone else was a white professional. Diversity at UNC is quite superficial.

Please spread the word about the program. I'm on the panel along with African American Studies professors Reg Hildebrand and Tim McMillan, Associate Provost Archie Ervin, and 2002 class vice president Byron Wilson. There will be 10 minute presentations from each panelist, 20 min discussion, 20-40 min discussion of what we can do differently (the sponsors of the panel are talking about a variety of major ways to change or supplement the monument).

Also, Rev. Barber, state NAACP president, is the keynote speaker for Race Relations Week on Thursday at 5pm, Hanes Art Center 121. It will be an important and inspirational speech.

Yonni Chapman is a recent PhD graduate of UNC in US history.

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Total votes: 424

Comments

The 11/9/05 CH News ran a letter from Louise Stone making similar points. It's worth repeating:

Campus sculpture demeaning

My goodness! UNC has done it again. Another slam against black folk erected on campus. With the help of a Korean artist, advising majority-culture art notables, a couple of students of color and $106,000, a pathetic, demeaning structure midgetizes the enormous contributions of black workers.

Perhaps the black Lilliputians cloaked with an unblemished, shiny surface truly reflects the state of affairs for workers at UNC. Add the soda cans, lunch wrapping, paper cups and goodness-knows-what-else -- does this honor anyone?

The Unsung Founders Memorial suspiciously resembles Maya Lin's sculpture dedicated in 1989 at the Civil Rights Memorial center in Montgomery, Ala. Was there no expectation of originality from the artist when this contract was made?

When the selection of the artist was announced, I shared my concern with the class president, Ben Singer, who shrugged off the matter with "the students understood the artist's proposal," which I suppose meant that realism is in. No metaphors, thank you!

A question still arises -- North Carolina has the 11th largest population in the country. Does this suggest that there is an insufficient number of creative artists in North Carolina to provide public art? This assessment brings me to say that it is logical that the Chapel Hill Public Art Commission needs to participate in the process. The university is not an island.

Belatedly, some honor is being paid on the mall to UNC black workers. Are we to be grateful no matter what poor manifestation has appeared?

Louise Davis Stone
Chapel Hill

Further, there is very little physical context for the memorial that makes any sense. Why was it put in what looks like a randomly selected (and now, often muddy) spot on McCorkle Place? Is it because Silent Sam stands on McCorkle Place, farther down toward Franklin? If so, the siting does the unsung founders no favors by comparison: there is the strapping Confederate soldier, armed and standing tall on his tall pedestal, and there are the little black people struggling to keep what appears to be a dinner plate aloft. Are they serving supper to Sam? If juxtaposition was the intent here, what could have been its point?

It doesn't make much sense to cast the whole thing aside at this point, but on a campus where ample space has been found to squeeze in whole buildings where once there were little patches of grass, surely a physical space that reflects and interprets the sculpture, and which doesn't emphasize its "lilliputian" proportions (thank you Mrs. Stone!), can be found. Something can be salvaged out of this, starting with a proper settiing and some context.

I still think this sculpture is powerful, beautiful, and provocative. I notice it every time I walk by. There's something to be said for its very strong presence where it's not competing with a lot of other buildings or pieces of art. It also seems to engage people more than any other art on campus--people are always there, thinking, studying, reading, etc. Perhaps the process was flawed, but I do think this piece is magnificent.

Too bad I can't make the panel on Wednesday. If any OP folks go, please report back.

Do Ho Suh, the creator of the piece, is a good sculptor, but I don't see how he could be as sensitive to the African American experience as an African American artist, and the proof is in the work. He phoned it in. It is a small table being held up by characters sterotyped to be African American. Unlike some of his more famous works their is not much difference from character to character. Also check the size of the women's feet, if those figures were lifesize those feet would be about 18" long.
The diminutive characters are standing under the table, if you were sitting at the table the figures heads would be staring at your crotch, not an honor in my book.
If the University wanted a Do SHo Suh so bad they should have commissioned one that didn't have to have a stipulated theme. This theme would have been better handled by an artist with a track record dealing with the African American experience, like say UNC's own Juan Logan.

Why does a discussion of race relations on campus need to focus on a single piece of art? Instead of criticizing this class gift, why not advocate for MORE public acknowledgement of the role played by slaves, minorities, women, and blue collar workers? Does the campus have a public art committee?

It's not an either/or, Terri. A number of people, Yonni Chapman in particular, have been involved in a variety of efforts to raise awareness and rectify past wrongs.

The focus on the art work is because it is expressive of a broader problem and a failed attempt to address it. If we don't examine where our efforts go wrong, we are in a poor position to do better in the future.

The class of 2002 had a great intention, but their implementation was flawed. But sometimes there is a great deal of learning that takes place in flawed processes.

What was the process? Did the class officers from 2002 actually select the artist and work with him to develop the concept for the table? Or was there a volunteer group of graduates that led the process--including those "one or two black students"? Or did the class donate money and some administrative group (white professionals) direct the process?

I am not an art critic. For me I find the memorial compelling.

I do not fault the Class of 2002 for the gift of the memorial. Scores of classes passed without any mention or thought as to the University's history with slavery or the Jim Crow repressed folks who followed and served the University. The make up of of the committee that made the decision or even the choice of the artist miss the points I take from the memorial.

The notice of the event was subdued at best. Media coverage was pitiful. Few of my fellow citizens were present for the ceremony. Regardless of ones feelings about the artistic merit of the memorial many more should have been there to remember what it tryied to symbolize. My thought is that many would rather protest or forget rather than take time to consider the awful past and its legacy for today. Like many painful things many would like to forget. Ater all "freedom is on the march" in our tme. Right?

Family members who were decendants of the "unsung founders" were there. Bernadette Gray-Little spoke the crowd. I still would like to have copy of her remarks. Since that time she has been named University provost, the number 2 position at UNC-CH. For me there was something ironic and satisfying at the same time in the fact that she is of African-American descendent.

Great observations, Steve. It was an impressive ceremony.

But what this debate here and in the media tells me is that getting agreement on "public art" is elusive at best and a nightmare at worse. No matter what process was followed and the numbers involved, there would still be people who won't like the art and the person who did it.

I am heartened, however, by the number of people who find the piece inspiring.

Steve,
I've pasted in below Bernadette Gray-Little's remarks at the dedication of the Memorial. You can also see a few photos from the dedication at http://carolinafirst.unc.edu/seniors/unsungslide/index.html

"Thank you Chancellor Moeser.

And thank you to the Class of 2002 for this extraordinary gift to the University community, and for your keen awareness and appreciation of the many contributions to our historic campus that have remained unacknowledged for too long.

I was invited here to talk about the significance of this monument and its legacy, which I am happy to do.

I was also asked to share a personal story that would perhaps deepen your understanding of the importance of this monument – a more difficult task.

I have long known that I would not be here as a faculty member and dean today if not for the sacrifices of the civil rights workers and leaders who came before and influenced the eventual opening of this University's doors to students and faculty of color, and to women.

We were reminded of such heroism this week with the death of Rosa Parks.

As an African American who grew up in small town eastern North Carolina, I know that at least some of my ancestors were enslaved on one or more plantations near Georgetown, South Carolina.

But that's about all I know of them.

One of the troublesome legacies of slavery is the cloud it casts over the family histories of those who were bought and sold as property.

My obscured family history is a reflection of the obscurity of enslaved persons. Enslaved workers often had no surnames. When they did have surnames, they were assigned by their owners, and those names were subject to change when they were sold to new owners.

Records of the births, deaths, purchase and sale of slaves were, for the most part, the private property of their owners.

For these reasons it has been difficult for my family to trace our lineage with historical accuracy. The institution of slavery has kept the true picture of our past hidden in the shadows, just beyond our grasp.

So it was for enslaved persons, who often were born in anonymity and buried in unmarked graves and even for some of the free persons of color, who contributed greatly to the magnificent historic structures which surround us today, including the oldest state university buildings in our nation.

Thanks to an excellent exhibit now at the Wilson Library, "Slavery and the Makings of the University," we can see records that document the work of at least some of these individuals, including those who are unnamed in the record, or who have no surnames.

For example, we know from the bursar's records in 1830, that university students paid a $2 fee to hire servants, including some who were slaves.

We also know that some of these servants saved the lives of University students.

When students burned the belfry in 1856, a "negro" servant, whose name is not recorded, put out the fire.

When another student caught fire lighting a lamp in 1859, he was rescued by a servant "belonging to the building."

We know also that some campus servants carried the surnames of our early university presidents.

There is one, who bore the name of two university presidents. Wilson Swain, was born into slavery, the son of November Caldwell, a coachman for President Caldwell, and Rosa Burgess, a slave of President Swain.
Wilson Swain, who was emancipated after the Civil War, worked as a college servant in 1875. Ten years later, he had been promoted to head college servant and his name had been changed to Wilson Caldwell.

We now know that there were both enslaved and free persons who built the buildings and infrastructure of our historic campus.

In 1793, the Board of Trustees contracted with James Patterson of Chatham County to build Old East. Patterson used his own slaves to paint the roof, though we do not know the names of these workers.

We also know that Colonel William Polk's slave carpenters worked on the construction of Old West – again we do not know their names.

We know that some of the slaves who built the campus were trained as skilled tinsmiths, carpenters and brick masons.

There were also highly skilled free blacks who made significant contributions to the campus, And some have been identified in the record. Leroy Anderson and James Smith, free carpenters, helped finish Gerrard Hall and make repairs to other buildings in 1837. Thomas Day, a highly respected black cabinetmaker, did the interior woodwork in the Dialectic and Philanthropic society libraries in Old East and Old West in 1848.

Consider for a moment the irony of this monument, the Unsung Founders Memorial. It tells us that long before persons of color were allowed to study or teach at this University, they contributed their labor and service to the campus. Let us pause to remember that while some shared their talents willingly and for pay, many labored anonymously as unwilling participants in a shameful system of enslaved servitude.

The physical beauty of this campus, and this monument, is a reflection of the labor and talents of persons both free and not free.

But today, I too want to thank the Class of 2002 President Ben Singer, Vice President Byron Wilson and their fellow students, and Do-Ho Suh, the artist, for this monument, which finally recognizes the many unnamed whose toil and talent made the nation's first public university possible.

This monument helps us realize their lasting contributions. It will help to make us and everyone who comes after us, aware and thankful to those who did some of the heaviest lifting, offered the bravest kind of service, and contributed some of the finest physical details to our University.

Let this monument also stand to reflect the present as well as the past, by reminding us of those who continue to contribute their toil and talent behind the scenes – providing the support and services that make the first public university one of the finest today.

This monument's lasting legacy will be to help us remember our complex past, and to honor _all_ of those whose labor makes Carolina great.

Let this monument stand to remind us daily of all the unnamed and unsung heroes of our storied campus and to give them voice.

Thank you Chancellor Moeser.

And thank you to the Class of 2002 for this extraordinary gift to the University community, and for your keen awareness and appreciation of the many contributions to our historic campus that have remained unacknowledged for too long.

I was invited here to talk about the significance of this monument and its legacy, which I am happy to do.

I was also asked to share a personal story that would perhaps deepen your understanding of the importance of this monument – a more difficult task.

I have long known that I would not be here as a faculty member and dean today if not for the sacrifices of the civil rights workers and leaders who came before and influenced the eventual opening of this University's doors to students and faculty of color, and to women.

We were reminded of such heroism this week with the death of Rosa Parks.

As an African American who grew up in small town eastern North Carolina, I know that at least some of my ancestors were enslaved on one or more plantations near Georgetown, South Carolina.

But that's about all I know of them.

One of the troublesome legacies of slavery is the cloud it casts over the family histories of those who were bought and sold as property.

My obscured family history is a reflection of the obscurity of enslaved persons. Enslaved workers often had no surnames. When they did have surnames, they were assigned by their owners, and those names were subject to change when they were sold to new owners.

Records of the births, deaths, purchase and sale of slaves were, for the most part, the private property of their owners.

For these reasons it has been difficult for my family to trace our lineage with historical accuracy. The institution of slavery has kept the true picture of our past hidden in the shadows, just beyond our grasp.

So it was for enslaved persons, who often were born in anonymity and buried in unmarked graves and even for some of the free persons of color, who contributed greatly to the magnificent historic structures which surround us today, including the oldest state university buildings in our nation.

Thanks to an excellent exhibit now at the Wilson Library, "Slavery and the Makings of the University," we can see records that document the work of at least some of these individuals, including those who are unnamed in the record, or who have no surnames.

For example, we know from the bursar's records in 1830, that university students paid a $2 fee to hire servants, including some who were slaves.

We also know that some of these servants saved the lives of University students.

When students burned the belfry in 1856, a "negro" servant, whose name is not recorded, put out the fire.

When another student caught fire lighting a lamp in 1859, he was rescued by a servant "belonging to the building."

We know also that some campus servants carried the surnames of our early university presidents.

There is one, who bore the name of two university presidents. Wilson Swain, was born into slavery, the son of November Caldwell, a coachman for President Caldwell, and Rosa Burgess, a slave of President Swain.
Wilson Swain, who was emancipated after the Civil War, worked as a college servant in 1875. Ten years later, he had been promoted to head college servant and his name had been changed to Wilson Caldwell.

We now know that there were both enslaved and free persons who built the buildings and infrastructure of our historic campus.

In 1793, the Board of Trustees contracted with James Patterson of Chatham County to build Old East. Patterson used his own slaves to paint the roof, though we do not know the names of these workers.

We also know that Colonel William Polk's slave carpenters worked on the construction of Old West – again we do not know their names.

We know that some of the slaves who built the campus were trained as skilled tinsmiths, carpenters and brick masons.

There were also highly skilled free blacks who made significant contributions to the campus, And some have been identified in the record. Leroy Anderson and James Smith, free carpenters, helped finish Gerrard Hall and make repairs to other buildings in 1837. Thomas Day, a highly respected black cabinetmaker, did the interior woodwork in the Dialectic and Philanthropic society libraries in Old East and Old West in 1848.

Consider for a moment the irony of this monument, the Unsung Founders Memorial. It tells us that long before persons of color were allowed to study or teach at this University, they contributed their labor and service to the campus. Let us pause to remember that while some shared their talents willingly and for pay, many labored anonymously as unwilling participants in a shameful system of enslaved servitude.

The physical beauty of this campus, and this monument, is a reflection of the labor and talents of persons both free and not free.

But today, I too want to thank the Class of 2002 President Ben Singer, Vice President Byron Wilson and their fellow students, and Do-Ho Suh, the artist, for this monument, which finally recognizes the many unnamed whose toil and talent made the nation's first public university possible.

This monument helps us realize their lasting contributions. It will help to make us and everyone who comes after us, aware and thankful to those who did some of the heaviest lifting, offered the bravest kind of service, and contributed some of the finest physical details to our University.

Let this monument also stand to reflect the present as well as the past, by reminding us of those who continue to contribute their toil and talent behind the scenes – providing the support and services that make the first public university one of the finest today.

This monument's lasting legacy will be to help us remember our complex past, and to honor _all_ of those whose labor makes Carolina great.

Let this monument stand to remind us daily of all the unnamed and unsung heroes of our storied campus and to give them voice."

I've still heard no one describe how the placement of the memorial supports its meaning, rather than detracts from it. I visit it fairly often, and it has no physical connection with anything around it, the ground around it is dirty/muddy and trampled. Even if the artist is Korean, it's still whitey's well-meaning but condescending vision of the African-American contribution to whitey's culture: the black person is part of a nearly faceless multitude, each scraping away at their bit to support The Man, about which we are now sorry but unwilling to portray as heroic. The poor little black people! Look at them facelessly hoist our load! How sorry we are!

Whitey sucks.

I'd like to add a couple of more points:

The discussion of the quality of this work of art is somewhat beside the point when assessing its value as a memorial or monument. Monumental art has a different, much more limited vocabulary than art intended for museums or private viewing, or even public art broadly construed. Monumental art goes a step further than other art in not only recognizing the role of the viewer in the art itself, but actively seeking to direct that role and therefore the viewer's response. In other words, monumental art sets out to make a specific point by working directly on the emotions of the viewer, manipulating them so that the response does justice to the subject of the memorial. Thus, a great memorial needn't be good art, it just needs to be accessible, quickly grasped (and, even, obvious), and emotionally resonant. Lin's Vietnam Memorial, for instance, is more a work of architecture, and it surely is obvious. (Engraving the names of the fallen on monuments has been common in America at least since the Civil War.) And yet, it's a powerful and successful memorial because of its context, presentation, and immediate visual impact. It hits you in the stomach.

Here's another, rather modest memorial that also achieves that effect. It was made by black people for black people, and it has become a focal point for the community. It's a gathering place, a place to pray, a starting point for parades and second lines, and the place where people most recently went to organize politically. It's called "The Tomb of the Unknown Slave":

http://www.staugustinecatholicchurch-neworleans.org/hist-slave.htm

Clearly, the memorial at UNC is a superior work of art. It's beautiful in its way. But I've also been to the Tomb of the Unknown Slave countless times, and I can tell you that it is vastly more powerful than the "Unsung Founders Memorial." Again, it is a gathering place, a place for contemplation, a key point in the geography of the surrounding neighborhood, which happens to be one of the oldest historically black neighborhoods in America.

So, let me reiterate my earlier point: the "Unsung Founders Memorial" would be better served if its placement and context and meaning were more integrated. I think this is possible, but not where it sits now. As it is, its current placement only underscores its shortcomings as a memorial. In me, it inspires anger at the memorial itself, and not those who kept those founders unsung.

Even the name of the memorial, "The Unsung Founders Memorial," seems needlessly prissy and gutless when I consider it in its current context. Even if it also memorializes the contributions of freedmen, it's still a slave memorial. Why not call it that? Surely this wasn't intended, but the current title could be read to imply that the greatest offense against the enslaved and exploited was that they went "unsung." I know this wasn't intended, but I also don't understand why the memorial's title is a little coy about its intentions.

Duncan,

It's placement may not have meaning to you, but I heard a faculty member speaking on this issue on Thursday afternoon and she felt the exact opposite. As you may realize, the memorial sits in front of Graham Memorial, the home of the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence. Classes meet around the sculpture and undergrads use it for socializing. Another way to look at this is that it's the first monument physically placed on the campus entrance.

Interesting that there was such loud and powerful opposition to te Vietnam Memorial. Many of those same folks now praise it and the artist.

I am still curious why this event was not better attended by the university community and the community at large. Maybe 100 people at most. I have read that there were a thousand or more at the dedication of Silent Sam. Also I repeat media coverage was poor. Why was that so? That is a point to ponder. Countless people, white and black, filed by the ceremony on the way to a UNC football game that Saturday. VERY, very few seemed to notice or care what was happening in McCorkle Place that day. Most had no idea what was going on.

The town of Chapel Hill and Carrboro should have an unsung founder memorial as this community was also built during its history by slaves and their descendants. Much of this countries history is built on a legacy of slave or near slave labor. Those who suffered include not only African-Americans but also native peoples and other minorities.

The memorial, no matter how flawed some will find it, was a first step in awakening our collective memory. The shame was that so few took the time to consider the past as a way to understand our present .

Terri,

I assumed people disagreed with me!

I feel pretty sure there are many who do agree with you, Duncan. That's the great thing about art--there isn't one right way to see it or think about it.

Except when it's on my wall, and then there's only one way to see it. I will not compromise on this point, and will ask people to leave if they do not agree: dogs in green eyeshades playing poker are not only funny, but great art.

 

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