Betsy Sugar ‘21
On February 15th, President Carol Quillen sent the Davidson faculty, staff, and student community an email addressing racist material in the college’s old yearbooks. Quillen explained that “Davidson College is committed to a full understanding of the college’s history with respect to slavery and race. The Commission on Race and Slavery is building a framework for such research and for conversations that will enable us to develop and share this understanding.”
This is one of the few official statements about the Commission on Race and Slavery from the college since the Commission’s formation last year. On its webpage, the Commission states it intends to “guide the development and launch of research projects and additional teaching and learning initiatives [to] investigate and acknowledge the college’s history with slavery and race.”
When the Commission was formed last year in 2018, the President’s Office pledged $25,000 for two years to support the Commission in their research and eventual suggestions to the President’s Office. The Commission only has this year left with pre-approved financial support from the institution. The student body has not been able to see the behind-the-scenes work the Commission has taken this past year.
Commission member and Dean of Students Byron McCrae explained that over the past year the Commission has been answering three questions: “What are the principles that guide this work? What do we feel we owe to the community? And how do we do this?”
“The idea of having a Commission on Race and Slavery is so broad, and we’ve been grappling with what exactly we want to be doing with it,” Commission member Saidah Rahman ‘20 added. “So the past year we’ve been trying to hone in on where even to start. So it has limited how far we’ve moved forward in terms of action because we have taken so much time figuring out what to do, but I think it’s an important step nonetheless.”
As for concrete action taken by the Commission, Rahman described the Commission’s support of programs and events already happening on campus, such as their sponsorship of the Africana Studies department presentation of Slavery, Violence, and the Archive, a recent conference hosted at Davidson. The Commission and McCrae’s office also facilitated the “Slavery and Class in the American South,” a lecture presented by commission member and UNC Chapel Hill professor Dr. William Andrews ‘68.
The Commission on Race and Slavery also hopes to send an interim report and survey out to the student body to update and obtain feedback on what the general student body wants to see from the initiative. However, besides the intended interim report and aforementioned events on campus, the commission has not taken other direct action on campus. However, it should be noted that the Commission’s current trajectory is thus far congruent with similar committees at other colleges, such as Georgetown and Furman, which took about a year before either school took concrete action.
The Commission does have lofty goals for the future. McCrae expanded upon the Commission’s overall aspirations. “This group’s purpose is really to consider how to be accountable in the present, and recommend to the president best practices and the best way to acknowledge our past in thinking about our future in light of what we’ve learned.”
While an admirable, and necessary, objective, each Commission member has a different idea on how to go about it. Jan Blodgett, author of One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina, wants to see conversations about race at Davidson spread out through all four years. “I think too much has been put on the freshmen, that you’re supposed to absorb it then,” Blodgett explained. “I think moving it up through upper classes and finding opportunities and ways that it can be integrated into the classes and the cultural life on campus.”
Rahman would like to see Davidson be more open and honest on its website about its past. Currently, the only official online acknowledgment of Davidson’s history with race is the “Always Part of the Fabric” documentary on the library website. However, the videos are in the Archives section of the website and difficult to access if casually perusing the current site.
Rahman explained she wants information like “Always Part of the Fabric” to be easily accessible. “What I would like to see from this commission is that kind of information to be digitally visual so that we become more transparent.” She believes that “everything needs to be public and it needs to be visual” for people to actually engage with and absorb Davidson’s history.
She also expressed hope that the institution will continue to fully back the Commission in the future. “The institution is behind us and our type of work, but they also have their economic interests at hand, which don’t necessarily align with our interests; it can be complicated. That’s why it’s been hard to put forward action steps that can have full backing by the administration.”
Reckoning with one’s past and the lasting effects is a necessary step colleges have been taking, but it does not always paint the college in the best light. This influences how much an administration will be willing to support these types of actions because they have to consider the ramifications on the school’s image. As of now, the commission has not bumped up against institutional pushback, but Rahman would not be surprised if that were to happen.
This year, the Commission will continue to move forward and hopes to achieve some of its loftier goals. “As a responsible institution about human instincts and changing the world, we have to face what we’ve done,” Blodgett expanded on why Davidson needs the Commission. “We’re not innocent. There’s culpability, and there are lasting effects that Davidson has been living in the 21st century.”