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From silencing Sam to confronting Carr

As always, new and returning students alike flocked this week to the iconic Duke Chapel for celebratory, Snapchat-worthy pictures to ring in the start of Fall semester. However, what those striking shots taken during the much sought after golden hour probably won’t capture is the now-vacant space at the Chapel’s entrance that once housed the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The statue was vandalized then removed nearly a year ago, precipitated by white supremacist violence at Charlottesville and the toppling of a confederate monument in front of the Old Durham Courthouse. Finally, on August 16th, President Price announced the decision to maintain the empty space in accordance with recommendations from the ‘Commission on History and Memory’ taskforce. This recent pattern of confederate monument removal in the Triangle area continued last week when protestors at UNC Chapel Hill collapsed the notorious Silent Sam statue

These movements to eradicate local Confederate statues—many of which were erected long after the civil war in order to intimidate black southerners during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Movement eras—have reignited a much-needed conversation around the legitimacy of these types of monuments. As a result, focus on campus has now been shifted to another stone memorialization of a prominent white supremacist of yesteryear: the Carr building. 

Julian Carr—namesake of the Carr building—was a wealthy tobacco tycoon whose is institutionally remembered by his status as one of the earliest donors to Trinity College, the donor of the land that now constitutes East Campus and as the sponsor of Charlie Soong, the first international Trinity College student. Carr served in the Confederate Army as a private in the Third North Carolina Cavalry and, later in life, sat on the Board of Trustees at Trinity College. In 1913, he delivered an infamously racist speech for the dedication of the Silent Sam statue, in which he bragged about whipping a black woman. His other documented statements are similarly violent and dehumanizing, including advocating for black voter disenfranchisement, sympathizing with lynch mobs, propagating anti-black, racist stereotypes and unambiguously supporting the Ku Klux Klan.

With all of this in mind, it’s no wonder that the History Department faculty officially filed to have it changed last Sunday. In response, Academic Council Chair Don Taylor parroted a common, ill-conceived defense of the dedication to Carr by stating that “Duke wouldn’t exist were it not for the generosity of Julian Carr” and that Carr’s clear, well-documented white supremacist ideology needed to be contextualized within the financial contributions he made to Duke. The moral and ethical implications for allowing Carr’s monetary standing to singularly impede any consideration for changes are troubling, especially given the current consistent pattern of racist incidents targeting black students, faculty and staff on campus. The only potential benefit from Don Taylor’s statement is that it serves as an unintended reminder that the hallowed grounds we walk upon are inextricably connected to legacies of white supremacy and the wealth generated by subjugation. What would Dear Old Duke be without the historical funding and support of white supremacists? The systematic slaughter of indigenous tribes that once lived in this land we now occupy? The wealth generated either directly or indirectly from chattel slavery? These questions cannot help but be posed when the naming of buildings or creation of statues function to memorialize and therefore recognize—usually in a linearizing and complementary fashion—historical figures connected to these painful historical moments.

The renaming of Aycock Residence Hall to East Residence Hall three years ago hopefully bodes well for the petition filed by the History Department. However, the Commission on Memory and History’s procedure for addressing these types of complaints is worryingly bureaucratic and opaque. A submitted proposal would theoretically be sent through an unknown panel of closed-door decision makers as well as the Board of Trustees’ Ad Hoc Committee before landing anywhere near President Price’s desk for consideration. Throughout the process, there is little transparent conversation on why and how decisions are being made or why these specific committees members have been chosen to decide these issues. Furthermore, the renaming of buildings, even with the best of intentions, can remain problematized because the process for doing so can easily devolve into willful erasure of the violent past the university carries—regardless of whether buildings are renamed or not—and potential for dishonest self-absolution of a history that has not been rectified. The hurdles of addressing buildings like Carr certainly aren’t simple, but confronting them in all their complexity is crucial.

Now more than ever, Duke must seize this opportunity to go forward in the removal of these odes to racist violence in a critical and intentional way. This history, carefully hidden away from brochures and prospective students, will not disappear: it will always be entangled in the fabric of this university’s legacy and, in this case, staring down at us every day from the balcony of the Carr Building, waiting.

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