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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.”

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