One on One: Coughs and sneezes about campus monuments and names

by D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – “When America catches a cold, Britain sneezes — eventually.”

Writing in The New York Times, Matthew d’Ancona, a graduate of Britain’s Oxford University and columnist for British papers, The Guardian and The Daily Evening Standard, reported, “The argument about the proper limits of free speech and ‘political correctness’ that has raged for years on American campuses has arrived at British universities with a vengeance.”

Statue of Cecil Rhodes on campus of Oriel College

Statue of Cecil Rhodes on campus of Oriel College

According to D’Ancona, there is a fierce debate at Oxford about a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus of Oriel College, a part of the university. Rhodes made a fortune in diamond mining in southern Africa and left much of it to Oriel and to fund the scholarship program that bears his name.

The objection to his statue is based on his white supremacist views. In 1877, he wrote, “I contend that we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

Last week Oriel College announced it would keep the statue, but the controversy continues.

Meanwhile last week in Chapel Hill, America’s cold continued to bring about loud coughs as a panel of distinguished faculty members discussed proposals to remove the “Silent Sam” Confederate memorial and the names of slave-holding or segregationist men from campus buildings.

Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Law Professor Al Brophy poignantly reported how an African American client in Sampson County told him that the Confederate memorial at the courthouse was a signal to her that she could not get justice there. If the memorial sent that message, Brophy suggested, its display could be a violation of the Federal Constitution.

Responding to a campus Board of Trustees’ 16-year prohibition on building name changes, William B. Umstead Distinguished Professor of History Fitz Brundage suggested a form of collective civil disobedience. The campus community, for example, could begin to refer to Ruffin Hall as Chambers Hall in honor of civil rights hero Julius Chambers. Although there would be no formal renaming, “we as a collective community would decide Ruffin Hall will be Chambers Hall.”

The only African American on the panel, Professor of Law Ted Shaw, said that he was more interested in preserving history than obliterating it. But with respect to the Silent Sam statue, he conceded that “sometimes we need revolution, but I am much more interested in an honest rendition of history, so that it isn’t, as we say in the black community, ‘only his story.’”

Campus historian Cecelia Moore pointed out that, for better or worse, the university’s building names reflect the power structure of an earlier time, rather than the values of today’s community.

Shouldn’t, then, the campus community be free to surround itself with buildings with names that reflect current values? And why stop at buildings and monuments? What about the names of scholarships and professorships named for distinguished men and women whose views on race would be unacceptable today?

Times columnist d’Ancona would say, no, “we have moral values –ones that are appropriate to our era. But for that very reason, if we build a monument that is consonant with those standards, then, reasonably, we expect it to be respected by future generations.”

Regarding the proposed removal of the Rhodes statue, d’Ancona continues, “Protecting them from the challenge of history by obliterating uncomfortable facts about the past would infantilize them.

“It would be a terrible precedent in this country, and because of Oxford’s renown, it would make headlines around the world. If Oxford is forced to take down its historic statuary, why stop there? Next for demolition: Mount Rushmore.”

Good point, but as Professor Lloyd Kramer pointed out to his Chapel Hill colleagues, one of those men on Mount Rushmore, Thomas Jefferson, told us, “The world belongs to the living.”


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. This Thursday’s (February 4) guest is Sarah Shaber, author of “Louise’s Chance.” Next week’s (February 7, 11) guest is Damon Tweedy, author of “Black Man in a White Coat.”

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