Proposal calls for free tuition for descendants of slaves who built UNC-Chapel Hill

Posted June 16, 2020 6:54 p.m. EDT

— To build its campus in the late 1700s, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used the forced labor of hundreds of enslaved people. Now, a descendant of some of those slaves is calling on the university to make a move toward equality by paying for the education of all such descendants.

"It’s fair to say that UNC would not exist at Chapel Hill without the institution of slavery. It was that prominent," history professor William Sturkey said Tuesday. "The university sold people in order to help fund the university, and then to actually help build the buildings of the university, the university rented enslaved people from nearby plantations."

The ancestors of Danita Mason-Hogans, a member of UNC's Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward, were among those slaves.

"A lot of my ancestors are buried on UNC’s grounds," Mason-Hogans said.

She is backing a proposal for the university to pay for educational enrichment from pre-kindergarten through high school, as well as tuition for college and graduate school – at any university in the U.S. – for all descendants of the slaves who labored at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"I cannot fathom a more equitable and just solution," Mason-Hogan said, adding that she will formally submit the proposal at the task force's next meeting.

Sturkey said it might be hard to find the descendants, who could number in the thousands.

"It would be difficult to prove all of the connections because the histories of those people were often erased," he said.

Despite the large numbers of people potentially involved, Mason-Hogans said she believes UNC-Chapel Hill could afford the expense.

"I definitely think UNC has enough money to fund this. They gave $2.5 million to the Sons of the Confederacy," she said, referring to a deal between the university and the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the controversial "Silent Sam" monument that was later thrown out in court.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz "fully supports the commission’s important work, and he looks forward to engaging its members and receiving their recommendations," the university said in a statement

"I think the commitment UNC would show by adopting this initiative would be that we are really trying to go into a new era, we’re really committed to building an anti-racist society and we really are trying to think about a society that is centered in equity," Mason-Hogans said.

UNC-Chapel Hill wouldn't be the first school to do something like this. Georgetown University recently approved a reparations program for the descendants of enslaved people there, and each student pays $27 a semester to fund the program.

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