By Betsy Sugar ’21, Staff Writer
After four years of work, Davidson College’s Commission on Race and Slavery released its findings in a report on August 19th, 2020. Chaired by Anthony Foxx ‘93, the 13 members of the Commission have included faculty, staff, and students since its inception in 2017. “The search for truth at Davidson must include the study of our own history, one that is intertwined with the institution of slavery as well as with persistent ideas about white supremacy and race,” the report states. To address this history, the report includes two main sections: a timeline of the college’s history with slavery and racial justice, as well as actions that the Commission recommends the college take.
Though the Commission planned to release the report last spring, according to Dean McCrae, they delayed publication after Davidson transitioned to remote learning due to COVID-19. This decision reflected the desire to host community forums in the fall that had been originally planned for the spring of 2020. As a large forum remains unfeasible due to the ongoing pandemic, the Commission moved forward with releasing its findings and recommendations in August.
In the report, the Commission unpacks the role of slavery during the college’s founding and early years. In 1835, slave owner Robert Hall Morrison began to raise funds for the foundation of a manual labor school, the report found. While Davidson College as an institution never owned slaves, “All college presidents through Drury Lacy (1855–1860) owned slaves, as did many faculty members. Those who did not own slaves often paid slave owners on nearby plantations for their services.”
Additionally, “financial records of the college show that the college also paid area slave owners for the labor of their enslaved people as servants on the Davidson College campus,” the report states. “Enslaved people performed maintenance and domestic labor on campus.” Violent racism continued on campus well after the Civil War. In 1928, “Students staged mock lynchings,” and in the “summer of 1959, crosses were burned on campus in response to the interaction of a white international student attending a workshop with a local Black resident.”
The college remained an all-white institution until 1962, according to the report. Davidson officially integrated when Benoit Nzengu ‘66, who was from the Congo, attended Davidson as the first Black student on campus. In 1961, only 51 percent of students supported integration, and the Board of Trustees voted to admit an African, rather than Black American, student. In 1963, another Congolese student, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja ’67, enrolled. 1964 saw the first Black American students at Davidson, Leslie Brown ’69 and Wayne Crumwell ’68. By 1967, of the 1,000 students at Davidson, seven were Black, and they formed the Black Student Coalition (BSC) to “foster a sense of community and provide support in response to ongoing hostility on and off campus.”
The Commission Report continues to detail both incidents of racism and the notable achievements of Black students on and off campus throughout the later half of the 1900s. For example, the Klu Klux Klan marched down Main Street in 1986. In response, “a coalition organized a counter-event for the campus and community on Patterson Court,” the report states. “Known as the ‘Solidarity Gathering,’ the success of the event in detracting attention from the KKK prompted the Student Government Association (SGA) to create a Solidarity Committee that, along with the BSC, organized additional antiracist programming.”
The report’s timeline concludes in 2017 with the creation of the Commission on Race and Slavery. The remainder of the report focuses on recommendations for the college going forward. Such suggestions include increased visibility and awareness of Davidson’s history with race and slavery, more comprehensive research into Davidson’s past, and the hiring of a full-time archivist dedicated to histories of slavery and racial justice. The Commission also “does believe that the college should rename the Chambers Building in such a way that our community collectively addresses the roots of white supremacy at Davidson and its ongoing manifestations.” The report notes, however, that this change ought to come with “critical analysis and thoughtful, intentional planning.”
The college has already put some of the Commission’s recommendations into action. As of Fall 2021, the school has created an orientation module with a more complete account of Davidson’s history, and all faculty, staff, and students will be required to participate in antiracism education. The college will also ensure all regular employees make at least $13.50 an hour, a living wage in Mecklenburg County, and “will review key practices (including those in hiring, contract bidding, compensation, admission, student discipline, and policing) through the lens of racial equity and building a just and inclusive campus.” This work will involve collaboration with outside experts, according to the initial action plan published on the college’s website.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Davidson had intended to host a Racial Equity Institute training over the summer of 2020, which would have been open to students, faculty, and staff. In an emailed response, Dean McCrae, a Commission member, commented on the decision to delay this initiative. “The Town of Davidson announced a racial healing, unity, and peace initiative that will include training offered by the Racial Equity Institute,” Dean McCrae stated. “We reached out to town leaders about combining efforts, and they agreed. We recently secured additional funding to support a larger overall effort.” The exact date has not been determined, as community leaders intend to wait until they can host the initiative in person.
The Commission acknowledged multiple times throughout the report that their research and recommendations should not be the end of the conversation. Some of their suggestions have already been adopted, but there is significant work for the college to continue building upon. President Quillen plans to discuss the report with the Student Government Association to determine how the college will move forward from here. Students can provide input through an online survey here.