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The Voice of the Black Community


UNC Chapel Hill students honor Wilson Caldwell
Panel discussion addresses racism on campus and in community
Published Monday, March 5, 2018
by Freda Freeman, Correspondent

CHAPEL HILL – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students and faculty, city officials, and members of the community gathered last week at Old Chapel Hill Cemetery to pay tribute to Wilson Caldwell and his contributions to the university and community. The celebration was planned to honor Caldwell’s legacy and to discuss what lessons can be learned from him today.

Caldwell was an influential African-American figure in the university’s history. Born in 1847, he was a slave to former UNC President David Swain during the Civil War. In April 1865, Caldwell accompanied university representatives to surrender Chapel Hill and the university to Union forces. After emancipation, he remained in Chapel Hill and worked at the university as a waiter.

In 1868, Caldwell was the first African-American appointed as a justice of the peace in North Carolina. In 1882, he went on to become the first black to be elected to the Chapel Hill Commission, forerunner to the Town Council. Also, he opened a school for free African-Americans in Chapel Hill in 1869.

Kristen Marion, co-president of the UNC-Chapel Hill NAACP, led the efforts to commemorate Caldwell. “Wilson Caldwell’s commitment and dedication paved the way for many students of color on this campus,” she said. “I’m so ecstatic that we have this opportunity to honor him in this way.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger (above) said student leaders, who had been planning the event since August, came to her because they wanted to recognize Caldwell for his significant contribution in promoting civil rights, awareness, and education. Also, this year marks the 150th anniversary of Caldwell being appointed a justice of the peace.

“In my role as mayor, I’m reminded daily of the valuable contributions of community leaders, like Wilson Caldwell, whose commitment to public service and the education of our youth helped move us forward as a community,” she said.

Fast forward to today, Hemminger said the community can see Caldwell’s courageous steps reflected in the diversity of the newly-elected Town Council, which is comprised of two African- Americans, one Chinese-American, one LGBT representative, seven women and a female mayor. “We all are firm believers that diversity and diverse perspectives make us all a better community,” she said.

OJ McGhee, chairman of the Carolina Black Caucus, also thanked the students for ensuring Caldwell’s contributions – including persuading Union soldiers from burning the university down during the Civil War – would not be forgotten.

“There are many things we can learn from Brother Caldwell,” McGhee said. “His story is important because his story is UNC’s story, his story is Chapel Hill’s story; it’s a story of working together.”

McGhee said if Caldwell was alive today, he would be proud to see black and brown students and faculty on campus, but he would also wonder why they were not afforded the same privileges as all students and all faculty members.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. The same goes for our campus today,” he said.

Following the ceremony, student organizations, including the NAACP campus chapter, the Black Student Movement, Black Caucus, and Black Congress, hosted a panel discussion of race relations on campus and communitywide. The panelists included Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment Inc.; David Mason, a member of the Chapel Hill Nine; his daughter, Danita Mason-Hogan; William Sturkey, UNC history professor; student activists’ Angum Check and Mistyre Bonds; and student moderator Mahogany Monette.

Marion said the reason for having the discussion was to show minority students who are having conflicts with the university administration that there is a community of activists who have their backs. One of the conflicts is calling for the removal of Silent Sam, a statue of a Confederate soldier, from campus. Students also pointed out that monuments memorializing people of color stand under the shadow of the Confederate flag.

Student activists complained about the lack of funding for Project Uplift, and they decried the closing of the Center for Civil Rights.

Project Uplift, which is sponsored by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, gives a diverse group of rising high school seniors from across the state an opportunity to live on campus for two days to see what college life is like.

The Center for Civil Rights, which is part of the UNC School of Law, provided free legal assistance to those in need. In September, the UNC Board of Governors adopted a policy barring the center from filing lawsuits or taking part in litigation.



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