January 30, 2008 edition

Jan. 30 issue as pdf


In a recent State of the University speech, Chancellor James Moeser described private funds as the fuel that propels a university to greatness.

With the close of the Carolina First Campaign, which raised a record $2.38 billion over the past eight years, the University has surpassed expectations in that quest.

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For the past five years, University researchers have examined how living in smaller cities, towns and rural areas influences the development of young children.

Now, with a $12.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the FPG Child Development Institute and the School of Education will look at how well these children make the transition to school.

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The master plan for Carolina North, along with a concept plan for an Innovation Center that would serve as its gateway project, shared center stage at the Chapel Hill Town Council meeting on Jan. 23.

Jack Evans, executive director of Carolina North, said the twin presentations of the master plan and a concept plan for the Innovation Center were important steps for the town’s approval. Both marked a culmination of months of planning on a host of fronts.

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The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York will support a collaborative effort on civil rights between the University and UNC Press.

The three-year, $937,000 grant will support “ Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement,” a project that, through print and digital publications, will underscore one of Carolina’s longstanding academic priorities: interdisciplinary civil rights scholarship.

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Fred Eshelman may not have intended to propel the Carolina First Campaign into the history books, but his $9 million pledge to the School of Pharmacy did just that. The University now has completed the fifth-largest campaign in higher education and the largest at a southern university.

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Unks paints picture of Chapel Hill before Brown v. Board of Education


“The Town Before Brown” was both a scholarly and technical collaboration between, from left, Gerald Unks, who wrote and produced the film; Andrew Brawn, a technology support specialist with Information Technology Services who served as the film editor; and Cary Gillenwater, a graduate student who co-produced the film and served as the videographer. Still photographs were provided by the Library of Congress, the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library, Chapel Hill High School and the Northside Senior Center.

Gerald Unks is no moralist. He will say that he is no historian, either, but merely a teacher who insists that students who enter his class will understand history better when they leave it.

Or at least the part of history he covers in Education 41, “The School in American Society.” And that is a pretty big deal. Unks has taught the class to more than 23,000 students since he joined the faculty of the School of Education 42 years ago.

It was in that course six or seven years ago, as he was trying to explain de jure segregation, that the inspiration for the 35-minute film, “The Town Before Brown” sprang to mind when several students asked him if segregation enforced by law was everywhere in the South.

The students gave him incredulous stares. “You’re kidding me,” they responded. They simply could not believe that such a system ever existed.

Yes, he said, de jure segregation was uniformly enforced across the states that comprised the old Confederacy and into parts of the Midwest, including southern Indiana and Illinois.

“It was everywhere, including Chapel Hill,” Unks told them, then watched as their mouths dropped in disbelief. The thought that an oppressive system could have been practiced in a place this progressive seemed unfathomable to them.

It was at that moment that Unks, professor of the social foundation of education and winner of three University teachings awards, knew he had to do something.

Through his students, Unks came to realize that the civil rights movement had been well documented, but that the time period immediately before it had not.

“The Town Before Brown” features interviews with individuals, both black and white, who lived in Chapel Hill during the segregation era. With their stories, Unks hoped to penetrate his students’ skepticism.

Through the stories, the film reveals how de jure segregation was an omnipresent fact of life in Chapel Hill prior to the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down the “separate but equal” clause that had sanctioned segregated schools.

“That was the genesis of the project,” Unks said. “Quite frankly, I was preparing a classroom aid was all it was. But over time, it grew.”

It grew in scope and quality, Unks said, because of the partnership he forged with Cary Gillenwater, now a first-year doctoral student in culture, curriculum and change, who ended up serving as co-producer and videographer of the film.

As Unks said, “We clicked.”

He estimates that 95 percent of the work — the hours of research in the library, coupled with the hours spent taping interviews — took place in the past six months. But in the seven years that have passed since that education class, the idea took root in his imagination and in a folder that grew increasingly thick as he kept adding clippings for the project.

“It was always there,” Unks said, demanding his full attention.

Segregation in Chapel Hill
The film is stylistically and thematically organized with chapter heads that set up the interviews, which are interspersed with still photographs that reveal how segregation was imposed and enforced in Chapel Hill and throughout the South.

As one chapter heading described it, “Segregation in Chapel Hill survived because of tradition, law and fear.”

In 1953, segregation on the basis of race was the law in 21 states as well as the District of Columbia, one page read. Segregation existed everywhere across the South, including places presumed to be “liberal.”

Even in Chapel Hill. In 1953, the town had nine restaurants, five barber shops, eight beauty parlors, four movie theaters, two funeral parlors, two cemeteries, four schools and one university. All were segregated on the basis of race.

As Reginald Smith, one of the African-Americans interviewed for the film, expressed: “Chapel Hill had an image of being very liberal outwardly. But underneath it, it was a little different sometimes. That image was portrayed because of the University.”

Don Pollitt, professor of law emeritus, is interviewed in the film to explain how de jure segregation was sanctioned under N.C. General Statute 115-2, which stated: “The children of the white race and the children of the colored race shall be taught in separate public schools, but there shall be no discrimination in favor of or to the prejudice of either race. All white children shall be taught in the public schools provided for the white race, and all colored children shall be taught in the public schools provided for the colored race …”

On paper, separate but equal was the law. But in the everyday lives of white and black families, the film portrays, it was a fiction whites bought and blacks knew better than to believe.

But for generations, both whites and blacks accepted it as a way of life that would not be changed.

As Rebecca Clark, an African-American woman interviewed for the film put it, “We was born into segregation. “We didn’t know no different.”

Churches, even hospitals, were also segregated, as were the schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas on May 17, 1954, striking down the legality of “separate but equal.” But that way of life took longer to change because of the white resistance that continued for more than a decade afterward.

In Chapel Hill, no consequential effort was made to desegregate public schools until 1961.

After the Civil Rights Act
In 1964, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, making it a federal crime to segregate public accommodations on the basis of race. Chapel Hill High School was not desegregated until 1966.

The University was completely segregated, too, and the administration made little effort to change things, largely because it lacked the political power or the legal jurisdiction to do so.

Wayne Bowers, a white man interviewed for the film, said the University’s administration in the 1940s and 1950s was caught between the state legislature, which fought desegregation as much as possible, and members of its own faculty who pushed for integration.

As Bowers said, “They were always worried about the money from Raleigh and Raleigh was not very keen on the idea.”

In the film, there is a clip of a 1962 interview of Frank Porter Graham provided by the UNC Center for Public Television. Graham, a former president of the Consolidated University, explained that he did not have the power to admit Negroes during his tenure.

“I couldn’t as president lawfully admit Negroes to the University, but as president I could say we don’t have to send them up to the (movie) gallery,” Graham said.

The effect of that law, Pollitt said, was to create a kind of “serfdom” by race. There were no black students or faculty members at Carolina, Pollitt said, and, “Every black who was employed by the University had a broom or a shovel.”

As bad as that was, it could have been worse, the film suggested. The level of intellect and sophistication among the University faculty mollified the full impact of segregation.

Erle Peacock, a white man who grew up in segregated Chapel Hill, said faculty were recruited from all over the country, including Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale, and many of them wrote and talked  in support of integration.

A white woman, Phyllis Barrett, said there was no tension between the races in those days and that relations were often friendly. “It really was a paternal society in that we looked after black people,” Barrett said.

But the friendship, and the respect that black people accorded whites and whites accorded blacks, were predicated on an unspoken but strictly enforced code that made everything between the two races separate as well as unequal.

Dorothy Stone, a black woman who grew up in the period, recalled that black people were always called by their first names, for instance, yet were required to call the white people they spoke with “Mr.” or “Mrs.” even if the white person was 30 years younger.

As the film pinpointed, if you were white you understood your sense of control, and if you were black you understood what your place was, where you could go and where you could not, what you could say and how you should say it. And in the end, it limited the kind of person you could be.

As Joel Williamson, professor of history emeritus, described, segregation was  “an assault on the black person’s self-concept and sense of self worth.”

Unks’ biggest surprise
Unks made the film as a teaching tool, but through the course of his interviews found that he was surprised at how contented the blacks were during that time.

“There is not one of those people who is angry,” Unks said. “That was a surprise. As one of the black men I spoke to put it, ‘You are born, you realize the situation and if you’ve got any intelligence you deal with the situation that’s there.’”

Unks said he planned to show the film to the Northside community in Chapel Hill and perhaps at his church, the Chapel of the Cross, where he was also surprised to learn that several of his interviewees attend.

Unks said anyone wishing to view the film or use it in class can contact him at 962-9378 or gunks@email.unc.edu. Anyone who wants a copy to keep can purchase it for $15.

And there may be another project soon to come.

Encouraged by the success of this first project, Unks and Gillenwater are already planning another. The first integrated class at Chapel Hill High School graduated in 1967 — the same year that Unks arrived in Chapel Hill to teach. Unks wants to talk to those students to find out if their expectations of going to an integrated school, both good and bad, matched their experiences.

He remains a teacher, after all, with more students to surprise.

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