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At Duke, slavery, Jim Crow and Confederate memorials are about to get more attention

August's removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee that formerly adorned the entrance to Duke Chapel has triggered a lot of follow-up discussion at Duke University.
August's removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee that formerly adorned the entrance to Duke Chapel has triggered a lot of follow-up discussion at Duke University. rgronberg@heraldsun.com

Duke University’s year-long discussion of Confederate memorials and how universities are dealing with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow continues next week with a two-day, public symposium.

Sponsored by Provost Sally Kornbluth’s office, the conference will bring to Durham some of the experts involved in helping their home institutions unravel and document the extent of their involvement with slavery.

Most will take the stage March 30, the symposium’s opening day, to participate in a two-part discussion of how schools like the University of Virginia, Furman University and Georgetown University have gone about the process of “reckoning with the past.”

Once they’re done, participants’ attention will turn to the specific disputes about campus Confederate memorials, the broader question of the ongoing economic impact of slavery and Jim Crow and finally “what universities ought to do about reparations.” The symposium will conclude March 31, and play out in room 153 of the Rubenstein Library.

One of the organizers, history professor Thavolia Glymph, said the conference is “motivated by the campus conversation that began” last August after Duke President Vince Price ordered a statue of Robert E. Lee removed from the entrance to Duke Chapel.

Price acted amid the nationwide protests that erupted after a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a counterprotester was killed. The protests included one in Durham that ended when participants toppled a Confederate memorial outside the offices of Durham County’s government.

Duke by then was already hearing calls to remove the Lee statue, but Price didn’t act until after an overnight vandal damaged the image. A study commission has since urged administrators to leave the space vacant for a year before officials decide what to do with it. One suggestion on the table is to replace Lee with a statue honoring Martin Luther King. Jr. or fellow civil rights icon Pauli Murray.

The study commission further urged taking the opportunity to “explore Duke’s history in a conscious and intentional manner,” advice that was likely redundant because Price has already promised to use the 2017-18 academic year to probe the issue.

Follow-ups have included a decision by Duke’s chief archivist, Valerie Gillispie, to commission research on builders of Duke Chapel, and the move by Kornbluth’s office to organize a recent forum on campus free speech.

The upcoming symposium, however, will directly address the issues at hand and includes people from a number of the campuses that Duke’s “Commission on Memory and History” looked to as examples of how to handle it.

One panel, for example, includes Georgetown history professor Adam Rothman, who served on a panel that examined the Washington-based institution’s ties with slavery.

Another will include Furman history professor Steve O’Neill, who likewise answered the call when the provost of the Greenville, South Carolina, school said it was time to address the fact that its founders were slaveowners and that its first campuses likely were “built, in part, by slaves or skilled African-American laborers, and with the profits from slave labor.”

The symposium appears likely to touch on events at nearby UNC-Chapel Hill. One of the panels on monuments includes UNC history professor William Sturkey, a critic of his institution’s Silent Sam Confederate memorial.

Duke officials appear to have made a point of seeing to it that there’s representation from neighboring campuses. From UNC, law professor Deborah Gerhardt and history department Chairman Fitz Brundage are joining Sturkey among the listed panel moderators or speakers. N.C. Central University Interim Provost Carlton Wilson, also a history professor, will likewise moderate a panel.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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