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New Initiative Offers a Fresh Perspective

Prof. William Sturkey
Prof. William Sturkey
For Prof. William Sturkey, historical education can never be a top-down affair. Central to the mission of a public university is the responsibility to give students the tools to think critically about their surroundings and to reach their own conclusions. This is the core idea behind an exciting new initiative he founded named the Historical Truth & Justice Action Fund. Its purpose is to support student projects that engage critically and creatively with the history of UNC. The fund aims to push undergraduates to think out of the box, not only intellectually, but methodologically, by using podcasts, videos and other media and delivery methods to shed light on hitherto ignored, marginalized, or unappreciated chapters of the university’s history.

Sturkey got the idea in late Fall 2019, when the university reached a deal to pay a neoconfederate group several million dollars to take custody of the “Silent Sam” Monument, which by then had been removed from campus. He had just finished teaching a course called “Race and Memory at UNC,” which partly addressed recent controversies about monuments and buildings glorifying university figures with ties to white supremacists causes. “I taught that class to educate our communities,” he recalls. “The university wasn’t doing enough to empower students and community members. What struck me was the tremendous hunger for this kind of historical inquiry.” The class met on Wednesday nights. It attracted a large enrollment, with 100 students and 20 alumni. “It was helpful for people who were thirsty for news and history. It showed that there is a demand among multiple campus constituencies for a critical reappraisal of the dominant narratives about this university.” The course, which was taught Pass/Fail for one credit hour, was not designed to place insurmountable burdens on the participants. Its purpose, instead, was to empower students and alumni to explore the university’s history in new ways. The results amazed Sturkey. “I had students doing podcasts. Walking tours. Thinking about history, and the university, in ways that were new, cutting-edge, in ways that hadn’t been done before.”

When asked to explain what empowering students means in practice, Sturkey does not mince words. “Imagine an African American student, perhaps a teenage girl, coming to Carolina as a freshman, and being given a room in Grimes Hall. We have documents showing that the building’s namesake, John Bryan Grimes, was involved in sex slavery. He was buying and selling teenage black girls to rape them. What do you do with a 18 year old black girl who is learning in a building named after a guy like that?” Sturkey notes that part of the controversy surrounding the effort to engage with racism at UNC, and especially the politics of renaming buildings and monuments, rests on false accusations made by neoconfederate groups about the harm of “erasing history.” Exploring the history of racism at Carolina, he stresses, represents the exact opposite. By way of example, Sturkey points to the decision made in 1967 to dedicate the campus bookstore to Josephus Daniels, perhaps the most prominent North Carolina politician to support the infamous white supremacist massacre and riot in Wilmington in 1898, an event that destroyed the city’s African American middle class. “The people who say you can’t erase history, they have no clue how much history has already actually been erased. Changing bulding names, or subjecting historical figures to careful scrutiny, is less about the namesakes, than about the people who made the decision to name the building. The bookstore naming happened right after desegregation in higher education. It’s not a coincidence.”

Sturkey stresses how important it is that such a historical reckoning proceed from the state’s flagship university. Nodding to far-reaching initiatives engaging with the history of racism and higher education in the South at the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, he points out that the UNC campus is “the most carefully curated commemorative landscape in the state of North Carolina.” Citing the teaching and scholarship of Prof. Fitz Brundage on commemoration and memory, he notes just how saturated Carolina is with historical memory, citing “the carefully curated names, the organization of it. If you are looking for monuments presenting a curated vision of the past, they’re everywhere. And in this carefully curated historical landscape, only certain kinds of people get to play a role.” Promoting a broader, richer, and more just understanding of UNC’s history is not only the business of historians and archivists, Sturkey suggests, “because these conversations are taking place across the South, across the country, across the world. If we want to have any role in them, we have to start by looking at ourselves.” Initiatives such as the Historical Truth & Justice Action Fund, that give students the chance to retell the university’s history from a fresh angle, will amply repay the modest support it has received from the university. In advocating for continued support from the administration, alumni, and the community at large, Sturkey makes his case succinctly: “We have to engage with our history as a university in a responsible, forward looking way, in a way that befits the stature of an ambitious research university.”



Fulbright-Hays Recipients Return to Research in Africa

After navigating almost three years of a global pandemic, two graduate students of the History Department, Laura Cox and Abby Warchol, received the Fulbright-Hays fellowship and are finally able to resume their research in Africa. Both scholars recognized the reception of this award as the driving force able to get them back into their dissertation projects and, as Warchol states clearly: “Quite simply, the Fulbright-Hays fellowship has made it possible to do my dissertation research. Since the archives I use in Senegal have not digitized their holdings, the inability to travel meant that I was unable to do much exploratory research that would have been helpful in conceiving my dissertation project and research plan.”

Abbey Warchol
Abbey Warchol
Warchol, who studies colonial communities and their relationships and responsibilities with orphaned and vulnerable children in urban Senegal, is using her Fulbright-Hays fellowship to spend a year in the country. As she works to explore the relationship between care and control in colonial systems, she highlights the importance of this time provided by the Fulbright-Hays. “Most of the sources I use for my dissertation are not online or available outside of Senegal, which means that my scholarship is dependent on having time to work in-country.” She adds that: “Archival and oral history research can be a slow process with a steep learning curve, particularly in the context of West Africa, so I needed more time in Senegal than a short research trip would allow.” Warchol left for Senegal in January, and after spending a few months working and living in the country, she reflects that: “Senegal weathered the pandemic better than many parts of the world, so at present my research sites are fully open .… After so much uncertainty, it feels unreal to be able to start the research for which I’ve been trained.”

Laura Cox
Laura Cox
Laura Cox shares many of the same sentiments concerning research opportunities granted by the Fulbright-Hays fellowship. While working in the African National Congress’s Women’s Section and studying global coalition building during the anti-Apartheid movement, Cox is using the fellowship’s support to work in South Africa, England, and Switzerland. She notes that “Fulbright-Hays has given me the wherewithal to gather archival materials and conduct oral histories in multiple locations. My project centers on globetrotters whose international activities created a scattered archive. It was always possible that I’d gather this research in a more punctuated and piecemeal fashion. However, the long-term financial support of the Fulbright-Hayes has made my international project feasible.” When reflecting on her research experience thus far in Cape Town, South Africa, she adds, “I find something significant in following the paths that my historical actors treaded. At one time, these paths functioned to help itinerants and dreamers realize a vision. Now, the scholars who retrace their steps occupy a world where that vision has materialized, if imperfectly.”

Both Cox and Warchol look forward to the rest of their research this year and appreciate the opportunity provided by the Fulbright-Hays to return tangibly to their work in Africa after over two years away.

–Nicole Harry



UNC Supports Ukraine

Rally at Polk PlaceOn February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine and catalyzed a war. Individuals and communities internationally mobilized to support Ukraine and its people in any way they could, including at UNC. For the academics and educators at UNC who specialize in the region and its history, this support took the shape of a teach in and rally held on March 4, 2022. This event was organized by three Ph.D candidates in the Department of History, Alma Huselja, Pasuth Thothaveesansuk, and Nicole Harry, and a Master’s student in the Global Studies Program, Kathryn Goodpaster.

When asked about her motivations for organizing the event, Huselja responded, “After the invasion, I had a number of students who talked to me after class about what was going on. I also noticed that besides them, other people I knew were surprised that Russia even invaded to begin with. With so much confusion floating around, I and my colleagues thought such an event would be a good way for people to have an open space for discussion, ask any questions, and hopefully come away more informed about what was going on.” In order to address these concerns, the teach-in consisted of an open floor, where audience members were able to ask questions and share their emotions and responses to the war. Professor of History Chad Byrant delivered a keynote address, and the panelists included faculty from the Departments of Anthropology, History, and Political Science. Also participating were Oleh Wolowyna, a visiting fellow from Ukraine, Suzie Colbern, Associate Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and a historian of NATO, and Elena Trubina, a visiting scholar from Ural Federal University in Ekaterinburg.

Commenting on the motivation behind the event, Thothaveesansuk, a doctoral candidate in Cold War history, noted, “One thing that stood out to me about the invasion was that Putin attempted to justify it based on a series of lies and disinformation about history. As historians ourselves, I felt like we were in a position to help counter the narrative even in a small scale, as well as help our community understand and process what had happened.” Echoing this theme in his keynote speech, Bryant stressed the importance of responsibly analyzing and filtering the mass of information and opinions circulating about the war, especially in social media.

Rally at Polk PlaceThe teach-in was followed by a rally held at Polk Place in support of Ukraine that included guests from the Ukrainian Association of North Carolina. In addition to speakers and communal conversation, participants also signed a Ukrainian flag that is now displayed in UNC’s FedEx Global Education Center. Reflecting on both the teach in and the rally, Thothaveesansuk added, “I was happy to see that we had not just fellow graduate students in attendance, but also undergraduates, faculty, staff, and other members of the community.”

Since the teach in and rally, other events have also been hosted on campus to educate the community about the ongoing war, including a roundtable of Ukrainian scholars and professionals as well as a benefit concert by a local Ukrainian band. As Huselja highlights, “It is essential, for Ukrainians’ sake, that Ukraine doesn’t simply fall off our news radar or that we become numb to what is going on. Events are a small way to educate people and motivate them to care and act in productive ways — whether that’s through donations, contacting representatives, etc.” The event, which benefited from a lively and engaged audience, highlights the contribution that historians can make, however small, to combating disinformation and speaking truth to power. It reflects the best of a longstanding tradition in the History Department of offering historically informed analysis and context about current events.

–Nicole Harry



Accolades

Celebrating Louise McReynolds

On Friday, May 6th, members of the History Department and colleagues across campus gathered in the lounge of Graham Memorial Hall to celebrate the career of Louise McReynolds, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of History. McReynolds has established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost cultural historians of the Russian Empire. For many at the celebration, however, her retirement was a bittersweet moment that hit much closer to home. Since arriving at Carolina in 2006, McReynolds has earned the deep admiration of undergraduates, doctoral students, and her colleagues. This can be attributed not only to the sheer force of her intellect and her gift for teaching, but also to her legendary disdain for all forms of pretense.

After Department Chair Dr. Lisa Lindsay opened the event, the master of ceremonies, Dr. Donald J. Raleigh, set the tone by commenting on McReynolds’s profound impact on the field of Russian history. As he noted: “Her scholarship is distinguished because she asks big questions, writes with flair and clarity, and places Russian developments into broader, comparative perspective…Cutting across the usual boundaries between social, cultural, and political history, her theoretically informed scholarly efforts have focused on charting and interpreting the cultural life of Russia’s burgeoning cities following the long overdue emancipation of the serfs in 1861.” The presence in the room of a number of McReynolds’s former graduate students, established scholars in their own right, was a fitting reminder that her legacy has been no less pedagogical than intellectual.

Of course, as anyone who knows McReynolds could attest, a celebration that was too somber or stately simply would not do. Thus, Raleigh set up a slideshow of old photos of McReynolds to play on repeat behind him as he paid tribute to her scholarship. There were childhood photos, beach photos, an image of the honoree sporting a 1980s perm, and even one of her in an impossibly unattractive Christmas sweater. These images set the tone for the rest of the event. Two of her former graduate students took the stage. The first, Dr. Andrew Ringlee, fondly recalled McReynolds’s gifts in the classroom and the importance of her example for his scholarship. The second, Dr. Stephen Riegg, made the trek from College Station, Texas to honor his mentor. Riegg prefaced his remarks with a statement of heartfelt gratitude: “I’m a very lucky person in general, and part of that fortune was having the privilege of studying Russian history under Louise, one of the world’s most respected specialists of imperial Russia’s cultural and social history.” He commented on the lasting impact McReynolds’ teaching and intellectual example had on his own scholarship, noting in particular her emphasis on the need to “render cogent, empirically strong analysis into a fun story.” Mixed with the praise were several points on which he and McReynolds differed. Riegg contrasted his color-coordinated, business casual attire with the “Carolina Class of 2022” t-shirt and pink khaki shorts sported by the honoree. Riegg even got in a word of criticism for his former adviser, citing her “inexcusable, ongoing failure to recognize the superiority of the Kansas Jayhawks in all things basketball,” a comment that led McReynolds to jump up from her seat.

Roars of laughter among the assembled guests continued to resound in the imposing, Hoover-era hall as Drs. Lauren Jarvis and Chad Bryant took up the theme of McReynolds’s iconoclasm. Jarvis gave an account of being the honoree’s neighbor during the pandemic. Her remarks emphasized how, during the lockdowns, the honoree turned her historian’s eye for detail toward monitoring what was going on in the Jarvis household. Jarvis would receive emails from McRenolds asking where Jarvis’s Christmas tree had gone, why there were repair people in front of Jarvis’s house, and how Jarvis’s children spent their free time (since they didn’t seem to be outside a lot). For answers to these questions, Jarvis got really great wine and stories at front-yard gatherings, a hand-me-down waffle-maker, and access to the creek that runs through McReynolds’s yard – to try to get those kids to play outside more. Jarvis had never been so happy to have nosey neighbor.

Next, it was Bryant’s turn. The first two words of his address said it all: “Oh, Louise.” Seizing the chance to “tell everyone about a Louise you may not know,” Bryant organized his remarks around four characteristics he would like everyone to remember the honoree for. He dispatched the first three – “subtlety”, “gentility”, “hierarchical” – to growing bouts of laughter as he described, through specific examples, just how little each word actually could apply to McReynolds. Gesturing, like Riegg, to her attire, Bryant asked rhetorically: “Why else would I dress this way today? I know that Louise loves etiquette and upper-middle-class social norms.” Bryant spent the most time discussing the last of his four characteristics: blasé. “Blasé about important political and ethical issues of our time. Blasé about scholarship. Blasé about collegiality.” Behind all the laughter, Bryant’s “roast” captured what members of the History Department will miss most about McReynolds, what makes her irreplaceable. As any of her students and colleagues could attest, she has always been honest, and always done the right thing, even when, or especially, it is unfashionable or unpopular.

To round out the event, Raleigh played short, recorded tributes from McReynolds’s colleagues around the world. One scholar recalled doing research in Russia in the early 1980s, when they were both graduate students. They were on a bus in rural Russia; it was so cold that their glasses had fogged up. “To think,” this scholar recalled McReynolds opining nondescriptly, “we could have studied Italy.” Through her decades of writing cutting-edge history and educating graduate and undergraduate students and junior faculty, she has maintained the ability to reduce everything to its essence, and to have fun in the process. Asked to provide comment for this article, McReynolds had only one thing to say: “Don’t worry about my career – just say I had a good one!”



Cristian Walk Receives Award for Graduate Teaching Assistant Excellence

Cristian Walk
Cristian Walk
Beyond their research, publication activity, grant proposal writing, and the challenge of staying on top of an ever-burgeoning historiography, graduate students in UNC’s history department are, first and foremost, training to become educators. Thus, it is significant that Cristian Walk was selected as one of five winners of the College of Arts and Sciences’ 2022 Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Walk, a Ph.D student focused on labor, business, and Latinx history in the U.S., notes that he is “honored to have received this award,” and “especially grateful to the students and professors who spent so much time submitting documents and testimony on my behalf.” His experiences as a teaching assistant have further shaped his own work, as, in his words, “I’ve increasingly tried to think about my own work in pedagogical and historiographical questions, allowing me to think through how I would organize a course on American labor or business history.”

The Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching was founded in 1952 by Sarah Tanner and her brother, Kenneth Spencer Tanner, in memory of their parents. The award was established to recognize excellence in inspirational teaching of undergraduate students, especially those in their first and second years of their undergraduate career. In 1990 UNC expanded the award to include the work of graduate teaching assistants. This year, awardees included graduate teaching assistants from the Departments of Computer Science, Psychology, and Political Science. The presence of a historian in this competitive field testifies not only to Walk’s talent as an educator, but also to the fact that, at its best, historical pedagogy emphasizes patience, compassion, and building relationships with their students.

Reflecting on his own time in the classroom, where he developed the skills recognized by the Tanner Award, Walk comments that “the most rewarding part about teaching undergrads is building a meaningful relationship with students and giving them the tools to learn on their own.” He adds, “It is especially rewarding to see students using the tools we teach them to craft their own arguments – especially when they challenge dominant narratives, including those we propagate.” Walk received the Tanner Award while teaching a course on conspiracy theories and historical truth, and he advises his students to “think critically and approach the classroom and entire university system with a healthy dose of skepticism. How does power shape the types of arguments we hear in the classroom and those who make them? That type of question should inform how students approach education and is one that I wish I knew long ago.”

While honored to have received an award for his teaching skills, Walk also wants to use it as a way of drawing attention to the hard work of his graduate student colleagues in the Department of History, who also deserve recognition for their pedagogy and empathy toward students. On this note, he draws attention to the ongoing plight of graduate students in the department: “If UNC really wanted to honor their teachers, they would pay all of us a living wage, not give out a few awards.”

–Nicole Harry



Gifts to the History Department

The History Department is a lively center for historical education and research. Although we are deeply committed to our mission as a public institution, our “margin of excellence” depends on generous private donations. At the present time, the department is particularly eager to improve the funding and fellowships for graduate students.

Your donations are used to send graduate students to professional conferences, support innovative student research, bring visiting speakers to campus, and expand other activities that enhance the department’s intellectual community.

Make a Gift


To make a secure gift online, please click “Give Now” above.

The Department also receives tax-deductible donations through the Arts and Sciences Foundation at UNC-Chapel Hill. Please note in the “memo” section of your check that your gift is intended for the History Department. Donations should be sent to the following address:

UNC-Arts & Sciences Foundation
Buchan House
523 E. Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Attention: Ronda Manuel

For more information about creating scholarships, fellowships, and professorships in the Department through a gift, pledge, or planned gift please contact Ronda Manuel, Associate Director of Development at the Arts and Sciences Foundation: ronda.manuel@unc.edu or (919) 962-7266.