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Some Want To Change UNC Award Named After Alleged White Supremacist

Posted April 15, 2004

— Cornelia Phillips Spencer's portrait hangs in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There is also a dorm named after her and she is buried in the Chapel Hill cemetery, but some people say the university should take a second look at the individual and her accomplishments.

Spencer is remembered most for leading the effort to reopen the university after the Civil War. She was a respected leader, who history suggests, had racist views.

"Cornelia Phillips Spencer felt that whites should be superior to blacks in the post-Civil War South," said Harry Watson, of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South.

UNC also has the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award. Every year, it is presented to a woman who has made outstanding contributions to the university. Now, some want the name changed.

"The woman that the award is named after is a white supremacist, and that should cause people to stop and think and not do business as usual," graduate student Yonni Chapman said. "We're trying to get the university to take its history and look at it honestly and not flinch and deal with it."

It is not the first time the past has haunted the present.

"You've got Silent Sam, the Confederate statue. You've got Saunders Hall back here, which is named after the leader of the Ku Klux Klan," Chapman said. "I mean the stone walls around the university were built by slaves. Our history is the present."

"It's important to remember it -- to talk about it, but not necessarily to lose our heads over it," Watson said.

This fall, the university plans to hold campuswide discussions about its racist history, about Cornelia Phillips Spencer, opting not to bury its past.

UNC Chancellor James Moeser has also commented on the controversy. He said, "We cherish the times in our past when this university acted as a force for enlightenment and progress. But the shameful institution of human bondage is part of our past, too."

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