UNC-Chapel Hill examines race and history

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n life, Eli Merritt would have never shared a table with William Richardson Davie and Cornelia Phillips Spencer.

Yet on the opening page of the University of North Carolina's new virtual museum, a photograph of Merritt, a college servant in the 1880s and likely a slave before that, sits beside portraits of UNC founder Davie (1756-1820) and Spencer (1826-1908), an ardent university supporter who vehemently opposed giving blacks the vote after the Civil War.

Merritt's inclusion at the historical "table" points to the university's glacially slow but sure move to reassess its identity and complex past. It's a past that includes slave labor at the university's very foundation, its begrudging integration and the long fight for a black cultural center.

After more than 200 years, there seems to be something in the Old Well water. In the last several years, individual students, scholars and archivists have been leading the way in interrogating the university's idea of itself as a liberal oasis in an otherwise red state.

There's now a class about the economics and politics of the black presence at UNC. Recent Ph.D. history graduate Yonni Chapman began asking questions in 2002 about Spencer's anti-black rhetoric and why the university would name one of its awards after her; the university renamed the honor in December 2004. Last October, Wilson Library archivists opened the Slavery and the Making of the University exhibit, the first comprehensive look at the "peculiar institution" on campus.

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