A Call to Action: Time for UNC to Act

Danita Mason-Hogans

GUEST COLUMN

Danita Mason-Hogans is a native of Chapel Hill, which has been home to seven generations on both sides of her family. A historian and education activist, she is a program manager in oral history at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and serves on UNC-Chapel Hill’s Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward. 

She intends to formally propose her “Call to Action” at the commission’s next full meeting. 

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By Danita Mason-Hogans

I am a member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward, which was formerly called the Commission on History, Race, and Reckoning, which is a successor to a 2015 task force on the same subject. 

Last week, two more commissions were created to ponder racism. While I am truly grateful to serve alongside amazing commission members and leaders, yet another committee, commission or task force is not needed to corroborate UNC’s racism and white supremacy. 

UNC has been forming these commissions for at least 50 years. It is time for UNC to act.

One critical way it should is by committing to fully fund a pre-k to 12th grade educational enrichment program for the descendants of the enslaved people who built the university and then fully fund their college education upon completion of the program. 

For starters.

I came to this conclusion by working with the community. The commission’s charge was too important for me to bear alone on behalf of the generations of Black people UNC has harmed, so I assembled a cross section of people with deep connections to UNC to advise me: local descendants of enslaved people, students from the first integrated class to the present, employees, educators, and informed writers and scholars. 

I thought that together, we might be able to gather from authorities information that might help me to carry back to the committee to contextualize our work.

Seeing many similarities between 2020 and 1970, I decided to read a few Daily Tar Heel articles from 1970. One article talked about the creation of a task force to examine the crisis of not meeting the needs of Black students. 

All of a sudden, memories of my lifelong connection to the university came back to me. I remembered those hard-fought battles for Black employees on campus by my godfather, Hayden B. Renwick and my mother, one of UNC’s first Black admissions officers. 

I witnessed the early days of the Opeyo dancers and the Ebony readers and all of the other ways in which Black students found outlets to voice frustrations with the university. I remember organizing and forming alliances with students at UNC while I was attending NC A&T and standing in solidarity and strategizing on how to establish a freestanding Black Culture Center. 

I remember moving back to Chapel Hill to start successful after-school programs having little funding but a solid partner in Bonita Joyce and an army of UNC student volunteers committed to making a difference. 

As I was reflecting, it occurred to me — I don’t need a bunch of research to conclude that UNC has a deep history of undervaluing Black lives. Black generational Chapel Hillians are authorities on UNC’s history with race because we have lived it.

As descendants of Chapel Hill’s enslaved for seven generations, families like mine carry the names but not the privilege of the powerful families we served, both as chattel and free, while watching from the sidelines as they made their names and fortunes and built their futures.

For more than two centuries, UNC’s education, connections and relationships have been opportunity pathways for countless global leaders and scholars. Meanwhile, local Black children have been subject to a persistent racial achievement gap — the second largest gap in the country according to a 2017 study out of Stanford University. Assuredly, COVID-19 school closures are making the disparity even larger as we speak.

Now is not the first time I have advanced this proposal. In September 2019, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce invited submissions for “Big Bold Ideas,” looking for a project to fund for town improvement. I submitted this exact same idea for an after-school enrichment program for descendants of enslaved people. 

An assembly of 175 delegates took several rounds of voting to narrow more than 500 ideas, then overwhelmingly picked my idea as the winner. The people were ready and willing. But the power structure was not. 

By the time the winning ideas were announced, the wording for mine was reframed as aimed at increasing all student performance in order to close the achievement gap. Not my words, and business as usual. Whitewashed. Again.

How could I not assert the need for this proposal? I come from resistance struggle too. I am the daughter of one of the nine local high school students who started the sit-in movement in Chapel Hill. Their actions were subverted, diminished and later re-written by the university. UNC students were discouraged from participating in the civil rights movement and scholarships were lost for doing so. 

As the goddaughter of Hayden B. Renwick, I understand what happens when university power is challenged. My ancestors toiled on Friday Center lands, and for years our families’ graves had cars parked atop them by fans and tailgaters for UNC games. What would I say to my ancestors who lie in untended graves on Finley golf course and whose descendants are still being undereducated and not valued, at the expense of this wealthy university?

This proposal is not a reparations program. For a brilliant, meaningful read on a reparations program, please read “From Here to Equality” by William “Sandy” Darity, economist, and former UNC professor and the brilliant Kirsten Mullen. 

This charge is specific to UNC and offers a path of correction, as well as a way it can finally utilize the under-tapped talent and potential in the surrounding community. Imagine the university benefitting from Pauli Murray’s brilliance had she been able to attend UNC. Think of all of the creativity and innovation that is being left underdeveloped in the local area. This is a mutually beneficial prospect.

My charge is specific to UNC because my family and families like mine — with their literal blood, sweat and tears — have contributed to the $6.6 billion endowment that UNC enjoys today. 

Capital projects are currently frozen due to COVID-19. However, I am convinced that since UNC was recently forced to take back the $2.5 million donation it made to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans who have brought terror and destruction to the university, then surely it can commit to fund an overdue education program for the sons and daughters of the enslaved who built and suffered at this university.

UNC’s commitment would not begin to pay for the nightmare that our enslaved ancestors lived through nor make up for the countless workers and students who have endured their own horrific traumas at UNC. It would, however, represent the university’s commitment that it is finally ready to truly invest in a new era of developing a path forward.

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7 Comments on "A Call to Action: Time for UNC to Act"

  1. Linda K Brown | June 20, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Reply

    The first step would be for the Board of Governors to resign–especially after their disgraceful handling of the Silent Sam debacle last year.

  2. Danita Mason. Has a beautiful voice and went chapel hill high school? She was my student. Very talented. Sane one ??? Please give her my love.

  3. In full support of your idea. Yes, why do we need yet another commission when we already know the issues, the history and the need to address disparities and institute this program.

  4. Ellie Kinnaird | June 22, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Reply

    This is a powerful call for action which should be approved and begun immediately. One thing the University is good at, is forming study commissions, and this latest is no exception. I remember when the Sonya Haynes Black Student Center was proposed, the University fought it from the beginning. When they finally agreed to build it, it’s logical location was next to the language buildings and Wilson Library in the Humanities part of the campus where it could have been accessible for all students to use. Instead, they put that beautiful building across the street in the middle of the science complex where most liberal arts students would not go on a regular basis. The Center is a treasure of creative and informative programming and art which should be heavily used daily by the entire student body. Let’s not let the University get away with one more half-measure.

  5. Danita Mason-Hogans | June 25, 2020 at 9:24 am | Reply

    Yes, it’s me Mrs.Beyle!! Forever grateful to you for always encouraging me and for filling my heart with beautiful song! What a treat to hear from you!

  6. Sheryl Forbis | June 30, 2020 at 5:15 pm | Reply

    When, when, when, will real action happen? Thank you, Danita Mason-Hogans, for your powerful article. How long?

  7. Thank you for this clear and compelling statement. I learned a lot from it and am going to share it widely. Let’s make sure that this time, real change is happening.

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