By: Caroline Roy ’20
Last week, students Evan Yi ‘18 and HD Mellin ‘20 led a group of around fifty peers and faculty on a walking tour around Davidson’s campus to expose and discuss the history of white supremacy that continues to influence the college and the town.
The tour took a route through Davidson’s notable buildings and landmarks, not unlike the path of a typical first-year orientation tour. Rather than talking about classes and meal-swipes, the tour guides used the same locations to point out the physical evidence of the racist and violent history that has shaped racial dynamics in Davidson for centuries.
Yi said that he was first inspired to take on this project two years ago, when he took musicologist Dr. Neil Lerner’s seminar about the film The Birth of a Nation, which famously led to the second revival of the Ku Klux Klan after its release in 1915.
The film was screened in the old student union, now Sloan Music Center, in 1961 and is one of many stops along the tour. “It depicted black enfranchisement and political empowerment after the Civil War as being catastrophic for the South and for the country as a whole,” Yi explained. “It filled the union to capacity.”
Some of the other notable stops on the tour included Chambers, where Yi and Mellin discussed the slave owning and slave trading past of Maxwell Chambers, and Main Street, where they spoke about the college buying out black homes and replacing them with more “picturesque” buildings.
To gather information for the tours, Yi and Mellin, along with their faculty advisor Dr. Rebecca Ruhlen of the Anthropology Department, worked with the college archivists, who already had access to useful information. They looked at interview transcripts from the children of black employees at the college, old meeting notes, oral history accounts, and yearbooks.
The tour ended at the E.H. Little Library, where participants got a firsthand look at the research materials that had informed the tour guides.
Mellin stressed that the tour was not just about giving people facts but about allowing them firsthand access to the information. “We’re socialized not to want to question things, and there can be a feeling of debt when you’re a marginalized student or on a scholarship. People need to feel support for questioning the institution,” they said. “The more info is available, the more comfortable people feel.”
Jan Blodgett, who worked as the College Archivist from 1994 to 2017, understands the power of making this kind of information easily accessible to a variety of audiences.
“Academics are at the intersection of class, race, and aspirations,” Blodgett said. “It’s important to get students to think about where the information comes from and who is telling the stories.”
Over the course of her 23 years at Davidson, Blodgett watched students become more comfortable calling out racism in the institution, especially as more students of color were admitted and interest in departments like Africana Studies rose.
“There’s still a sense on this campus that the normal audience is white, and everyone else is invited onto campus as a guest, not as the norm,” she said.
While the tour covered specific instances of racism in Davidson’s history, Mellin and Yi noted that the primary intention of the tour was to “show what Davidson is still doing” and to encourage people to think about the many ways that the legacy of white supremacy manifests itself in the present day.
“Legacy admissions are one big way that this still works,” Yi said. “Legacy is still very exclusive to white people, so people of color are barred from legacy admissions.”
During the tour, Mellin mentioned the story of James Howard, a black man employed as a janitor who did work as a research and teaching assistant despite getting paid a janitor’s salary. Mellin went on to connect this treatment of a black worker to the present status of people of color employed at Davidson.
“Our faculty is still predominantly white, but our Physical Plant workers are predominantly people of color, mostly men of color,” they said.
Ellie Kincaid ‘20, who participated in the tour, said that she thought Yi and Mellin were well-researched and well-prepared for the event.
“It was well advertised, and I feel like it made a difference,” said Kincaid, who participated in the first tour. “They talked sensitively and comfortably about race. They didn’t seem to trivialize anything.”
Kincaid took Professor Isaac Bailey’s “Race and American Journalism” class last semester, which focused on uncovering the story behind the fatal shooting of a black man Damon Kearns and Davidson police officer Mark Swaney.
“I learned about the history from 1970 forward in my personal research, but I didn’t know about a lot of the early history,” she said.
According to Yi and Mellin, the archivists and other participants expressed interest in making the tours an ongoing project and possibly even part of Davidson’s orientation. One participant had the idea to make the project into a virtual tour that could be available on Davidson’s website.
Yi and Mellin have already made some changes to the tour’s route for their next run on Saturday, and they say that if it continues in the future, they want to gather more information by interviewing black residents in the town.
“The college is an artificial community. People turn out each year,” Yi said. “For members of the town, this is their permanent community. Raising awareness doesn’t do enough for them.”
Davidson Disorientation’s second scheduled tour will depart from the Union Amphitheater at 2:00 P.M. on Saturday, April 21st.