Lessons Learned: Legacies of Slavery on a Southern Campus

Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a CIC member institution.

Our guest contributor today is Daniel Fountain, Professor of History at Meredith College.

For the past two years, I have served on Meredith College’s Universities Studying Slavery (USS) Research Team.* (Meredith is an independent liberal arts college for women, founded in 1899 and located in Raleigh, North Carolina.) Like many others, the research team found that our understanding of campus history was deeply flawed. Our “anti-slavery” namesake, it turns out, owned slaves throughout his adult life, wrote a pamphlet defending slavery, used enslaved people as collateral for debts, and, despite multiple public statements anticipating slavery’s eventual disappearance, he freed nobody in his will. While this was surprising, things got even worse: Meredith College leaders were key players in North Carolina’s 1898 White Supremacy Campaign that triggered a coup d’état in Wilmington and culminated in constitutional changes that ushered in the Jim Crow regime. Yikes!

Throughout the research process, we were asked to provide the college administration with regular updates and primary source collections to assist our board of trustees in their review of named campus structures. We successfully accomplished this despite juggling limits imposed by Covid, a full regular workload, and often facing very tight deadlines. In early 2021, I wrote and shared an article addressing our findings about Meredith College and its early history with white supremacy. During the next administrative briefing, my article was singled out for significant scrutiny and critique. It was an awkward conversation, but I defended the findings. 

Shortly thereafter, the president, a Meredith College amluna, informed our USS Research Team that the board would conduct its own research from this point forward and would call on us if needed. Our dismissal was another uncomfortable moment and, in my view, contributed to problematic statements about college history. For example, our board’s initial statement announcing the retention of the name Thomas Meredith inaccurately indicated that he once supported abolition. He never did. Having a historian in the room could have helped avoid repeating that false narrative. Despite these frustrations, our team continued its work. As a result, a journal published my article,† we made conference presentations, incorporated campus history into our teaching, and provided administrators with regular, if unrequested, updates.

What have I learned? Recovering the racial history embedded in America’s higher education institutions is important but not easy work. It can provide important clarity on the historic role of colleges and universities in our society, facilitate professional activities and publications—but also draw serious scrutiny because of institutional interests and heartfelt attachments. Accordingly, to avoid pitfalls, do not rush this work, hold yourselves to the highest standards, and be as transparent as possible by engaging broad campus constituencies. Ask the same honesty and transparency of others. Prepare yourself for slow, incremental change as institutions are cautiously deliberative and deep-rooted traditions are resilient. 

While old narratives are hard to change, be persistent and good things can happen. Our president ultimately praised my article, the college issued a revised namesake statement, and the board of trustees consulted our research to rename a building honoring a racist former trustee. Slowly but surely, the work continues.

*Fountain is also the lead faculty member on the Legacies of American Slavery project team at Meredith College. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else at Meredith College or the Council of Independent Colleges. You can contact him at fountain@meredith.edu

†Fountain, “The Role of Baptist and Meredith College Leadership in White Supremacist Advocacy and Policy in Early Twentieth-Century North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review 99:1 (January 2022), pp. 36–73.