Sohan Gade ’25 (He/Him), Senior Staff Writer
On October 4th, Davidson students received an email from Board of Trustees Chair Alison Hall Mauzé ‘84 about the Special Committee on Commemoration.
Mauzé wrote that the committee “has been tasked by the Board of Trustees with planning a permanent commemorative site, including the possibility of a commissioned work of art, to honor the contributions of enslaved people and others whose labor was exploited on our campus.”
The Commemoration Committee posted its timeline to recommend how to properly honor the exploited labor of enslaved people on Davidson’s campus. The timeline started with an initial campus site visit scheduled for last June and ends with the final selection of a work in October 2022.
The Committee consists of several Davidson alumni and four consulting members from the faculty and staff, including Jeff Prince, Director of Major Gifts, and Lia Newman, Director of Van Every/Smith Galleries. Together, they held workshops to develop the Request for Qualifications for artists applying to design a commemorative piece.
“Art can not only bring us together in dialogue around difficult issues, but I believe it can lead to healing and growth,” said Newman.
Charlotte City Council Member and Davidson alumnus Braxton Winston ‘07 commented on the physical reminders of exploited labor on Davidson’s campus. He explained, “[it] was just one of those physical representations of what I expected to be coming.”
Professor of History and member of the Commission of Race and Slavery Dr. Rose Stremlau explained the need to properly define “history” when engaging in debates concerning commemorative markers of historical people or events.
“I always begin these conversations by emphasizing that street signs, building names, statues, et cetera, are not history. History is the study of the past based on the surviving evidentiary record. It is a practice that is ongoing and not a static thing that can be preserved, intact, or erased. Many critics of the removal of signs, statues, et cetera, call that ‘erasing history.’ It is not,” said Dr. Stremlau.
Moreover, she noted that the nature and perception of historical markers evolves with time.“Different aspects of the past inspire us, move us, and matter to us compared to those who lived in other times. […] The people who erected those statues were making powerful statements about the dominance of white men (and to some degree women) in their own time.”
Students and alumni have engaged in related conversations regarding the commemoration of white supremacists or Confederate soldiers on campus. During the spring of 2020, a student-led petition to rename Chambers Hall circulated, citing archival evidence that Maxwell Chambers owned enslaved people. In his Perspectives piece, former Davidson political science professor William E. Jackson Jr. ‘57 discussed the plaque beside Main Street highlighting Woodrow Wilson’s year of study at Davidson. Princeton University, Wilson’s alma mater, announced that it would remove Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. Jackson urged Davidson to follow suit.“The College should petition N.C. authorities to remove the historical marker on Main Street that bears his name,” he wrote.
The city of Charlotte created a Legacy Committee last year with similar aims. For example, the Committee voted to rename a number of streets in Charlotte named after Confederate leaders and white supremacists. Jefferson Davis Street, the first of nine streets to be changed, was renamed in September.
Winston expressed that much remains to be done to properly commemorate the history of Black people in Charlotte. “Inequity in our county, Mecklenburg County, and in Charlotte has been exacerbated over the years. A lot of institutions like the city of Charlotte, like Davidson College, are putting a lot of effort into actions to counteract that exacerbation,” said Winston.
When commenting on Davidson’s progress, Winston approved of the campus community’s direction under President Quillen. “It’s been amazing to see the changes that have occurred. When I got to Davidson, there was something like six to eight Black students in my class,” he said.
Winston then expanded on two different milestones for the Black community at Davidson, the first being the creation of the Africana Studies department in 2014.
“Part of my frustration was figuring out my academic home. There wasn’t [a department dedicated towards] African American studies, there was not even a minor,” said Winston.
The second milestone was the formation of a chapter for Davidson’s first Black fraternity—the Alphas—during Winston’s time at Davidson. Though he was not a fraternity brother, Winston acknowledged the difficulties in bringing the organization to campus.
“I was there with [them] through the years that it was brought [to Davidson]. [We] tried and tried and eventually brought [it] on campus, and it was hard,” said Winston.
Winston also encouraged Davidson students to create change in the community and advocate for progress. “The student body should recognize that as well. Recognize the power that you have,” said Winston.