Disorientating and Reorienting Recovering and Analyzing Legacies of Colonialism, Slavery, and White Supremacy at Davidson College

This platform provides an overview of Davidson College's history that highlights patterns of colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy and demonstrates their institutionalization at the college with the help of visual materials. The information is organized thematically, and is chronological within each section. Dates are provided whenever possible, and some facts and statistics are in bold for emphasis. The images included are a combination of photographs taken by the project's creator, photographed archival materials, and uncopyrighted digital images. For a list of Works Cited, please see <http://disorientingdavidson.com>.

Colonization of North Carolina

This section addresses the arrival of the Davidson family in the Americas and how the accumulation of the family’s wealth and the foundation for Davidson College were based upon the seizure of Indigenous land and the displacement, injury, and murder of countless Indigenous people.

Background shows a map of Indigenous groups and colonial campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas around 1700

A critical fact both universally acknowledged and habitually forgotten: for centuries before colonial contact, Indigenous peoples lived on and were stewards of all the land throughout the Americas, including present day North Carolina (Bauer 2016, 2-3; NC Commission of Indian Affairs 1983). Expeditions as early as the 1600s and studies of the American territories by people like John Lawson (Moore 2002, 11-2) and John Lederer (Lederer 1672) set the stage for waves of Europeans to travel to and colonize what they called the “New World;” the very use of this phrase solidifies the European perspective on land that had already been the home of Indigenous peoples for millennia. The Davidson family arrived during one such wave, likely in the late 1690s or early 1700s, as part of a larger group of Scotch-Irish fleeing Ireland (Davidson and Sondley 1911, 15-6). It is clear that at this time, the Catawba Confederacy (made up of the Esaw, Sugaree, and Catawba people) was already well established in the Carolinas (Moore 2002, 11), and the Cherokee had moved from the Blue Ridge Mountains into the area of the Catawba/Wateree River located near the current border between North and South Carolina (Ibid, 2).

Background shows a reconstruction of The Old Fort (also called the Davidson's Fort) at its historic site in Old Fort North Carolina

As early as 1757, a colonial fort had been established in the Swannanoa valley; although the original location may have been determined by a treaty with a group of Catawba, an outbreak of smallpox in 1760 decimated the remaining Catawba and left the White colonists in control of the fort. By 1776, this Fort had become the focal point for White settlements in the area, and was owned by a member of the Davidson family and often referred to as Davidson’s Fort (Ibid., 18-19). For an unspecified period of time before the 1780s, John Davidson and Nancy Brevard lived at the fort with their child; while British treaties may have encouraged settlers to establish homes in this area, these so-called treaties were almost certainly not produced with the appropriate level of Cherokee and/or Catawba input or consent, and as a result, it is believed that Davidson and Brevard were eventually killed by Cherokee individuals in the area (Ibid., 21). Nevertheless, the outpost, which is believed to be the present-day Old Fort in Old Fort, North Carolina, was a critical access point to Western North Carolina, and was used by numerous European colonizers as a site for scouting the land they would eventually claim (Ibid.; Unknown 1996).

One of the first to do so was Samuel Davidson (a relative of John), accompanied by his unnamed wife, a young child, and an unnamed enslaved woman, who moved further West in to North Carolina and built a cabin along Christian Creek. Even according to colonial laws, this settlement was an encroachment on Indigenous land, a violation that eventually resulted in the death of Davidson at the hands of several Cherokee men; following the discovery of Davidson’s body, a group of White settlers attempted to “avenge” his death by chasing and murdering a group of Cherokee who lived in the area (Davidson and Sondley 1911, 21-22). Despite his death, Davidson’s impact on the colonization of North Carolina was clearly profound: “in death, Samuel Davidson accomplished what he had been unable to do in life. He opened up the way to settlement in Western North Carolina...and people have been coming ever since” (Unknown 1996). A subsequent group of colonizers, including members of the Davidson and Alexander families, eventually established the “first permanent White settlement west of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina” (Davidson and Sondley 1911, 23).

Today, the area surrounding the original fort has been made into a historical site that includes a reconstruction of the Old Fort (shown here in the background). The corresponding museum and monument are shown below.

Background shows a map of Georgia and the Carolinas in 1825, including a section of land in Mecklenburg county that the Catawba were eventually restricted to

While some Indigenous peoples (such as the Cherokee and the Catawba) are explicitly named in colonial documents, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between groups or to know exactly who lived where. Firstly, this may be because colonial records did not always attempt to distinguish between Indigenous groups, and frequently stereotyped and collectively maligned them as animalistic, violent, and subhuman (Davidson and Sondley 1911, 18-23; Rindoks 2005; Lee 1963). Additionally, many originally-distinct groups came together as part of forced ethnogenesis brought on by colonial contact (Stremlau 2019); the Europeans decimated numerous tribes through the (often intentional) introduction of disease and substance dependency, which often pushed tribes to join forces in order to survive and resist in the face of continued colonial violence (Merrell 1984, 379; Bauer 2016, xiii; Stremlau 2019, Moore 2002; Fitts and Heath 2009).

Background shows a 2015 map indicating which Indigenous group(s) in the present-day United States owned which areas of land

However, it is clear that the land now occupied by Davidson College was that of the Catawba Nation (Victor 2015). The term Catawba was not originally used by the peoples it referred to, but by the 1750s had come to describe a confederacy of Indigenous people including groups that had joined earlier in the 18th century (the Esaws and Sugarees, as discussed above) and ones that were eventually assimilated into the nation, such as the Charras, Saxippahas, Waterees, Casuies, Wasmisa, and Wiapies (Moore 2002, 11-3).* While Indigenous people are often thought of as figures of the past, the Catawba and other Indigenous communities still exist, and are constantly adapting to and resisting the continued occupation of their land (Crediford 2009); nevertheless, the initial contact with European colonizers irrevocably changed the social, political, and physical landscape of the Catawba and other Indigenous peoples. It is clear that the origins some college scholars have called “rural” (Blodgett and Levering 2012, 18) are more accurately describe as “invasive” and “colonial,” and that the settlement of European families like the Davidsons on this land, as well as the establishment of Davidson College, are predicated upon Indigenous genocide.

*Note: Many of these names have alternative spellings and pronunciations; for more information on these groups, see Moore’s work.

Control of Black People and the Coercion and Minimization of their Labor

This section address the coercion of black individuals and the ongoing reliance upon and minimization of their labor on and around the land of Davidson College. First, it discusses the White families (including the Davidsons, the Brevards, the Morrisons, the Sparrows, and the Alexanders) who enslaved Black people and profited from their labor, and how the resulting resources made up the fortunes and property of the majority of the college’s early administration and faculty. Similarly, it shows how students were primary beneficiaries of this labor, including the literal construction of the college itself. Second, it traces the racist attitudes and economic conditions that relegated Black individuals to physical labor and custodial jobs following the Civil War and extending at least until the 1970s, reflecting patterns of economic and social inequality in the 20th century that were established during the era of slavery.

Background shows a Tax Report entry from 1850 concerning the Alexander family of Davidson North Carolina

The charter for North Carolina lands, issued by King Charles II to establish a colonial government under the control of eight of his loyal supporters, shows that Africans were enslaved in North Carolina by 1663 if not earlier (King Charles 1663). By the time Mecklenburg county was established in 1762 (Morrill 2011, 14), the areas most influential and wealthy men, including Hezekiah Alexander and Thomas Polk, claimed ownership of numerous enslaved people (Ibid., 26-8). Of the approximately 8,000 inhabitants of the County in 1850, over 3,000 of them were enslaved, meaning that enslaved individuals constituted about 40% of the total population (Yi and Mellin 2018). That same year, there were 17 planters listed in the county who claimed ownership of 30 or more enslaved people; by 1860, there were 30 such planters (Davidson 1969, 24-5).

Until the 1870s, multiple branches of the Davidson family were heavily dependent on enslaved labor, for daily living and for the generation and accumulation of their wealth. In 1850, the largest enslaver in the county was Robert Davidson (also known as Robin), who claimed ownership of 109 enslaved people (Mellin and Yi 2018). John Brevard Davidson owned several plantations, but his most infamous one, Rural Hill (near present-day Huntersville), has extensive documentation on the enslaved people who worked on the property (Williams and Williams 2012). These documents show that enslaved people were frequently “gifted” to and moved among the Davidson family plantations; for example, Mary Davidson’s 1836 dowry included 19 enslaved people, at least 12 of whom were children (Ibid., 98). Multiple members of the Davidson family appear in 1850 Tax Records as “holding Black polls,” which indicates that they claimed ownership of multiple Black workers (Town Company 1850); an excerpt from these tax entries can be seen here in the background.

Background shows Maxwell Chambers' signature on business documents from 1783 and 1784

The Davidson family were not the only ones to make use of enslaved labor. Moses Winslow Alexander and David T. Caldwell, both early trustees of the college, owned and operated plantations in the area (Chalmers 1969, 26). Maxwell Chambers, one of the earliest and most significant benefactors of the college, undoubtedly claimed ownership of enslaved people and may have been further involved in the slave trade (Yi and Mellin 2018). Patrick J. Sparrow and Robert Hall Morrison, both of whom were instrumental in the funding and founding of the college, also claimed ownership of enslaved people and amassed their considerable wealth from enslaved labor (Ibid.; Davidson College 1965, 3). These men and their peers laid the foundation for the establishment of the college and the collection of its early resources, both of which were clearly predicated on enslaved labor. For more about them and their role at Davidson, see the “Disorienting & Reorienting” Tour at <http://disorientingdavidson.com/>.

Background shows a 1956 map of the college that highlights the original tracts of land purchased in the 1830s

After several years of meetings by the Concord Presbytery (Shaw 1923, 12-20), construction of the college began in 1836, on land purchased from William Lee Davidson II (Williams and Williams 2012, 8). Enslaved labor was used to create materials and assemble numerous buildings (as outlined in detail in the “Disorienting & Reorienting” Tour), and all Black people in the area (whether enslaved or free) were subject to harsh restrictions; by 1850, curfews for Black people were commonplace, and their ability to purchase alcohol, leave plantation areas, and attend church services were greatly curtailed (Morrill 2011, 31). The duties of enslaved people working at the college were clearly defined by the Board of Trustees in 1855, and included but were not limited to “making fires in multiple rooms, making beds and cleaning rooms, carrying water to rooms, and blacking boots and shoes” (Shepherd-Smith 2018). The same year, a group was formed to patrol the college and handle cases of “errant livestock” and “any negroes who may collect about the college on Sundays” (Ibid.).

Background shows an undated map of the town which demonstrates the growth of Davidson and the surrounding area

Similar patterns of reliance on formally or informally coerced Black labor continued at the college during and after the Civil War. Despite being legally freed from enslavement after the war, Black people had few rights protecting property ownership, and often had to settle for jobs with poor conditions and low pay. Mary Beaty discusses some of the Black men who worked at the college in the 1870s, noting that in official college records they “were called nothing, in keeping with the amount most of them were paid” (1988, 195). The sharecropping system soon arose to replace enslaved labor, operating similar to tenant farming and keeping land ownership predominantly in the hands of White people; the intense work was often the only choice for Black men and women to earn a meager living, and at times was so demanding that it prevented Black families from caring for their children and even living together permanently (Blodgett et al. 2018, 40-1). Partially because of the continued economic and social restrictions they faced, many previously-enslaved Black people settled around the college or areas near it, such as Smithville (Ibid., 51; Kelley 2019). Shane Stewart has noted the relative ease with which people in Davidson can recreate their family trees because of this, arguing that “the slaves, after they were freed, took the names of those plantation owners, and you still see those names here in Davidson, in Mooresville, and Cornelius” (Blodgett et al. 2018, 57-8).

As the 20th century progressed and farming became less profitable, the primary source of employment for Black residents of the town was working in service jobs for White people, including physical labor for men and cleaning, cooking, laundry, and childcare for women (Ibid., 11; DC Archives 2015). Many of these jobs were at the college, which was still the largest provider of jobs in the area. A 1926 Davidsonian article discusses a Black employee named Baxter Williamson who began working for the college at age 14 and was enslaved at the time of his birth (Shepherd-Smith 2018); at least several other Black men are noted to have begun working for the college at a young age, such as John Donaldson who reportedly began “odd jobs at the college when he was 11 years old” (Torrence 1955). These examples demonstrate how the technical transition from enslaved labor to contract or wage labor did not necessarily translate to improvements in terms of working conditions or end such injustices as child slavery or child labor. For more about the college’s manipulation of Black labor in the 20th century, see the “Disorienting & Reorienting” Tour. College custodians (who have historically been predominantly Black men and women) were still expected to make students’ beds until 1966, and didn’t receive comparable benefits until the 1970s (Davidson College 1990). 1973 was the first year that Black employees were hired for jobs that did not involve physical labor (Shepherd-Smith 2018).

Deep Roots in the Confederacy

This section addresses the involvement of Davidson College administration, faculty, students, and other community members in the Confederate cause, the Civil War, and the fantasy of “the Lost Cause” and demonstrates how pro-Confederacy and pro-slavery attitudes continued to influence campus life long after the war ended.

Background shows a plaque on the front of the college's Phi Hall commemorating Robert Hall Morrison as the "founder of Davidson College"

Even before the Civil War began, many of the college’s founders were deeply embedded in the Confederate cause, and the Morrison family is an ideal entry point into this conversation. In November of 1836, Robert Hall Morrison was chosen as the first president of the college (Shaw 1923, 23), and is remembered as the founder of Davidson, as shown here. Despite his claim that he “was a union man at heart” (Ibid., 28) and his opposition to Southern secession and, in theory, slavery (Eye 2003, 23-4), Morrison was a staunch supporter of the Confederacy and (as previously discussed) claimed ownership of multiple enslaved people who were forced to work on the college grounds (Ibid.; DC Archives 2015) His wife, Mary Graham Morrison, was related to William Lee Davidson II (Herran 1997, 3-4), and the entire Morrison family was closely tied (usually by marriage) to Confederate generals such as Stonewall Jackson (Ibid., 31-4), Daniel Harvey (D.H.) Hill, and Rufus Barringer (Beaty 1979, 32).

While these three men all played significant roles in the Civil War, D.H. Hill was particularly influential at Davidson college. He began teaching in 1854, and quickly dominated campus decisions and pushed then-president Samuel Williamson to resign (Craig 1976, 5). A strong proponent of “Southern cultural nationalism” (Ibid., 17), Hill was vocal about his support for slavery, and wrote textbooks with a clear pro-Confederacy bias (Ibid., 11). Anna Morrison, the daughter of Robert and Mary and wife of Jackson, organized the Stonewall Jackson Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1898 to celebrate and “immortalize” the Confederate cause (Herran 1997, 148). She eventually became a symbol of the Confederate South in Davidson and a rallying point for soldiers and their families who sought to keep the spirit of the Confederacy alive (Ibid., 123). While the Morrisons are a key example of Confederate conviction, even a cursory look at sources from this time period will demonstrate the complex web of familial, social, and economic ties that linked the Alexanders, Brevards, Davidsons, and Morrisons together in pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy ventures (Davidson 1969, 22).

Portrait of Stonewall Jackson and Anna (Morrison) Jackson with their child

Background shows an excerpt from an academic paper written by Mark E. Hess in 1979 on Davidson College and the Civil War

The Civil War lasted from 1861 until 1865, and changed the face and direction of the college forever. While the Board of Trustees continued to meet and thus kept the college technically open, it encountered at least three forced closings due to lack of sufficient (and at certain times, any) students (Hess 1979, 8). While the number of students in 1861 and 1862 was impacted by changing conscription laws, campus opinion was almost unanimously pro-Confederacy by 1861, and many students left the college voluntarily to enlist or to take the place of older brothers who had already enlisted (ibid, 7; Yi and Mellin 2018). Davidson college students, alum, and faculty played numerous roles in the Confederate Army and Government; Hess (1979, 12) is correct in noting that the “contributions of [Davidson] men are too numerous to list,” but the scope of their involvement can be gleaned from existing statistics. At least 321 alum served in the Confederate Armed Forces (Johnson 1982, 4), and the majority of these served in the volunteer units of their states, mostly North and South Carolina (Ibid., 5). At least 10 faculty (including D.H. Hill) served in some capacity, and at least 3 alum were representatives in the Confederate Congress (Ibid., 3-10).

Background shows an excerpt from the original letter written by John Lycan Kirkpatrick in 1865 (discussed below)

Although pro-Confederacy sentiment remained strong in and around Davidson even as the war drew to a close, the college’s close alignment with the Confederacy posed an increasingly concerning financial (though apparently not moral) burden. Beaty (1979, 9-10) argues that the college’s “real loss was financial,” as the Board of Trustees’ choice to invest the college’s endowment in Confederate war bonds proved to be a critical mistake; the college lost at least $37,000 which had been directly invested in war bonds, and lost an unspecified amount from investments in corporations that were similarly aligned with the Confederacy (Ibid.; Shaw 1923, 119; Yi and Mellin 2018). Although it is difficult to determine exactly how this impacted the college, contemporary inflation calculators estimate that this loss would be equal to more than a million dollars today.* A letter written by college president John Lycan Kirkpatrick in October of 1865** provides an incredible glimpse into the campus morale and attitudes toward the emancipation of enslaved people during this time:

“In the downfall of the Confederacy and of our Banks, our college has suffered heavily...Our investments (the safe ones I mean) are not generating much.

The negroes are [--] naturally with the idea of their freedom...they refuse...to work at all or do more than half work. Thousands of them have [made] their home prowling over the country, living by pillage. Others who yet remain at home are not only lazy but insolent to insufferable... The Federal Officers do what they can to keep them in order...but their efforts are neutralized by the private soldiers who mingle with the negroes [--] of equality. Mine are still with me but say they are going to Charleston. I do not care how soon they go… They have always been a thorn to me but I will not drive them away to starve… as long as I can endure their violence and insolence.”

*Note: for estimates, see <https://westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi>, <https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1860?amount=37000>, and <https://www.davemanuel.com/inflation-calculator.php>.

**Note: this excerpt from Kirkpatrick's letter was transcribed from the original 1865 document (shown here in the background), and thus is only a partial selection and has been edited for clarity.

Background shows an excerpt from an academic paper written by Joe Craig in 1976 on Davidson College and D. H. Hill

Despite (or perhaps because of) the great loss of life and money, the college’s commitment to the Confederacy did not end with the Civil War. The post-war celebration and promotion of the Confederate Army and the ideals it stood for is commonly known as the “Lost Cause,” an ideology and movement under which White Southerners sought to preserve and extend Confederate values (Cox 2003, 1-3). In hope of revitalizing the Confederate cause, White men and women worked to promote Confederate veterans and imagery (including the flag), censor and destroy media that portrayed the Confederacy unfavorably, and remove Black people from the political arena to consolidate their own power (Ibid. 2; 162; 14 ). Rooted as it was in pro-slavery and anti-Black sentiments and collaboration with the KKK, the campaign was and still is inseparable from racism and White supremacy (Ibid., 107).

Numerous examples (both explicit and implicit) of this Confederate fantasy are clear in the college’s history following the Civil War. In 1866, D.H. Hill became the author and publisher of a Charlotte magazine called The Land We Love (Alexander 1902, 187-8) which was designed to be an “organ of the late Confederate States Army” and an assurance that he would not “repudiate the cause for which he and so many others had fought so valiantly” (Herran 1997, 106-7). Between 1880 and 1920, there were 12 documented lynchings within a 30 mile radius of the college; references to lynching were popular, and often overlapped with KKK imagery and behavior (Yi and Mellin 2018).

Content warning: discussion of lynching, visual depiction of a mock lynching

Background shows a photograph of a mock lynching performed by the Georgia Club in 1920

The Ku Klux Klan (or KKK) first emerged after the Civil War as a platform for White men and women to threaten, restrict, and terrorize Black people under the banner of anti-Reconstruction sentiment, and has experienced various resurgences since (Cardyn 2002, 676-7). One such resurgence occurred in the 1920 following post-WWI societal shifts (Trelease 2006). During this period, there are several explicit references to the KKK in the college’s archives.

The image shown above, which signals the opening of the “Fraternities” section in the 1921 college yearbook, shows a Klan figure wearing robes with a cross-like decoration and holding a torch and weapon (Davidson College 1921, 145). The image shown below appears in a similar section of the 1920 yearbook, and includes multiple Klan figures wearing robes and engaging in ritual or group activity (Davidson College 1920, 65).

Klan figures from the 1920 Quips & Cranks yearbook

The photograph in the background is also taken from the 1920 yearbook, and depicts a group of students called the Georgia Club staging a mock lynching with an unnamed Black Physical Plant employee on the Chambers lawn (Ibid., 173). For more on this image and the explicit Klan context surrounding it, see the “Disorienting & Reorienting” Tour.

Not only are these references to the KKK conscious and deliberate, but their inclusion in the student-designed and administration-approved yearbook and their placement in relation to specific student groups and so-called “secret fraternities” strongly suggests the significant presence of KKK organizations and ideology on campus. The Klan’s presence in the broader area surrounding the campus (particularly Davidson, Mooresville, and Huntersville) well into the 1950s is well documented (Blodgett et al. 2018, 54-5). Whether or not the KKK had a distinct campus presence, the graphics shown here display a clear imitation and endorsement of the Klan’s mentality and behavior.

Background shows a 2007 Davidsonian article written by Anthony Brown and Andrew Johnson on the Confederate Flag being displayed in SAE that same year

Explicit references to and praise of the Confederacy continued well into the 20th century at the college. John Rood Cunningham, president of the college from 1941 until 1957, gave a speech in 1950 praising Robert Hall Morrison and arguing that he left the college “a rich legacy of an honored name, a holy life, and elevated character” that was “infinitely more precious than all the treasures of the earth” (Herran 1997, 139-40). John W. Kuykendall, college president from 1984 until 1987, was also a vocal fan of Morrison, praising him as a “pastor, preacher, presbyter, and servant-leader” with no recognition of his role in enslavement at the college (Herran 1997).

Confederate flags were common in the Kappa Alpha Order (KA) fraternity house in the mid to late 20th century (Anonymous Interviewee #3 2000), and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity house hosted confederate flags at least as recently as 2007 (Brown and Johnson 2007, 8). For some time in the late 20th century, the tradition of the Old South Ball involved dressing up in Confederate-era costumes (military uniforms for men and hoop skirts for women) and posing for photographs before marching down Main Street (Yi and Mellin 2018). This may or may not have been the same event as the Civil War reenactments that have occurred on college grounds through at least the 1970s; Hess (1979, 18) writes that “still, every spring a few students don the uniforms of their brave ancestors and parade around campus in a vain attempt to grasp the passion and chivalry that once was...its greatness can never be rekindled.” Even the rhetoric of this paper, written in 1979, depicts a deep appreciation of and nostalgia for the Confederate attitude and aesthetic.

Background shows a 1920 map of Davidson by the Southern Railway Company which identifies a section of the town as "Negro Row"

Separation and Segregation

This section addresses the college’s relationship with and attitude towards Black residents of the town and Black people in the area. It discusses the establishment and maintenance of segregation between the college and the town, the exclusion of local Black people who did not directly work for the college, the school’s narrowly passed measure to begin integrating in 1962, and the intimidation of Black residents for the creation of the campus Greenway.

Background shows a photograph of “Random and Interesting Facts about Servants at Davidson College" compiled by college archivists

The Board of Trustees’ (vol. I) notes from the 1830s to the 1890s paint a picture of a raucous and rebellious White student body that was prone to chaotic and violent behavior; eye-gouging and duels were apparently popular methods of addressing interpersonal conflict, and disciplinary sanctions were often handed down for fighting, swearing, drinking, “throwing rocks in Chambers Building, and otherwise defiling it,” and “immorality, rioting, thievery, and more” (Roseberry 1992, 6). Beaty (1979, 46) mentions that the college’s “honor system” (assumably a precursor to the honor code) may have first come about because faculty and staff were tired of constantly policing the students’ bad behavior.

Despite this, it was the Black residents of Davidson who were continually presented as potential threats to the safety and security of the campus. As soon as the Civil War ended and college officially reopened, immediate measures were taken to further isolate the campus from the presence or influence of any Black people who did not work there. Sometime between 1865 and 1869, several students had an altercation with a Black man on campus, and after beating him violently were arrested and eventually fined by Federal troops garrisoned in Charlotte; then-president John Lycan Kirkpatrick considered the punishment of his students an affront to the college’s character, and one former student noted “He was more indignant when he heard the news and the results of the trial than I had ever seen him, though I had lived at his house for several years. His face whitened and his lips quivered so that he could not speak” (Shaw 1923, 118). However, the man continued to be harassed, and his home was shot at three nights in a row until he was forced to leave Davidson (Ibid.).

Also in this period, a Davidson college professor who had explicit connections to the KKK formed a group of White men to threaten and police Black people in Davidson (Hess 1979,17). Cornelia Shaw’s (1923, 118) description is as follows:

“When a negro spoke rudely of the daughter of one of the professors, Lieutenant Verner, who had been a member of a Ku Klux Klan, organized a clan of twelve men, composed of students and clerks in the stores, and frightened the colored community into good behaviour. The group had all the ghostly paraphernalia which was a part of the intimidating scheme and provided an outlet for some of the indignation that the prevailing conditions produced.” The incident itself is clearly one of racist violence, and the description (written in the 1920s) only reinforces this by reducing the situation to an “outlet” for post-Civil War White rage.

Background shows a photograph of the Board of Trustees meeting notes from September 30th 1865

In 1865, the college faculty voted on and upheld a provision that “every negro, colored servants of the College excepted, be prohibited from entering the College building at any hour, for any purpose, without permission” (Board of Trustees vol. 1, 256; Yi and Mellin 2018). This rule remained in place for at least 40 years, and was continually adjusted to decrease the supposed threat posed by Black townspeople; in 1875, 2 Black men were listed as “exceptions” to the rule, and in 1892 the college issued a statement saying that “only a select few of our large number of colored citizens will be allowed the privilege of coming on the campus this year...as a preventative measure against trouble (DC Archives 2015).

There does not appear to have been much concerted effort made towards Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War - instead, the college seemed stuck in a perpetual state of “humiliation” (Shaw 1923, 117) over the loss of the Confederacy and constant reminiscence for the college’s “bright prospects” (Davidson College 1965, 4) before the war. Many sources concerning the college skim over Reconstruction and do not discuss the experience of freed Black individuals at all (Davidson College 1965; Herran 1997; Shaw 1923), choosing instead to focus on the desperation of White Southerners who now faced an agricultural future in which they could no longer rely on enslaved labor. This must have impacted not only attitudes at the college but also the academic standard, as a self-study report on the college (Davidson College 1965, 4) notes that the “curriculum was altered very little” during this period.

Through the 1870s, the literary societies of Phi and Eu Hall continually debated topics such as “Was the reconstruction of the Southern States justifiable?” and “was the introduction of slavery into the United States beneficial to the human race?” (Shaw 1923, 258). Some individuals associated with the college and its prominent families took great pride in referring to themselves as “un-reconstructed,” including Theodore Fulton Davidson (Wright 1986) and D.H. Hill (Alexander 1902, 187); Hill’s "The Land We Love" magazine was also explicitly anti-Reconstruction (Herran 1997, 106).

Background shows a portion of the "College Greenway" that runs along Griffith Street

1990 Issue of the Davidson Journal detailing the college's struggle with integration

The college did not begin to accept Black students until 1962, and the process was both slow and hotly contested (as discussed later). The college has also had a hand in the displacement of Black townspeople, as shown by the construction of the “College Greenway” pictured here that runs along either side of Griffith Street between Beaty Street (to the Southwest) and Watson Street (to the East). Before the 1980s, this area included a number of houses, most of which were owned by Black residents of Davidson. In the late 1970s, Davidson College alum (Class of 1966) Howard Covington began to voice his alleged concerns about the living standards of these residents, claiming he was worried for their health and safety; however, his later remarks claiming that the houses were “wild” and had “junk cars in the front” and racist comments comparing Black residents to dogs and claiming they were incapable of improving their standard of living (Maczka 1984, 2-3) demonstrate that his true interest lay in creating a White-washed “green” entryway to the college.

In 1981, a group of Davidson alumni led by Covington incorporated the properties. The college was not technically a part of the incorporation group, but personal investments by trustees and alumni donations to support this specific effort made it clear that the project was an institutional priority; Covington personally invested $75,000 of his own money (Ibid., 2). Throughout the process, Covington refused to answer questions or address community concerns (Ibid., 4), and multiple Black residents believed it to be a deliberate effort to relocate and silence them (Anonymous Interview 1990s).

Background shows an undated map of the town, including Davidson's "Business Section" that remained segregated at least through the 1960s

The Racialization of Sexuality and the Sexualization of Race

This section addresses the overlaps between anti-Black racism and concepts of sexuality. It investigates attempts to prevent interactions between men and women of different races and several instances of policing Black men for alleged behavior that was supposed by White bystanders to be sexual in nature.

Background shows the Chambers Building as it appears on a college postcard owned by Henry T. Lilly, one of the namesakes of the college's Lilly Gallery

While the college’s attempts to keep the White students and faculty separate from Black residents has already been discussed, these rules were also undergirded by fears of interracial mixing between men and women specifically. The first year the college was open, a student was expelled for “keeping the company of a female slave” (Shepherd-Smith 2018). In 1836, a group of students beat another student and, after “blacking his face with soot and tallow,” tried to “make a negro boy kiss him” (Board of Trustees vol. I, 234-7). Here, an already racialized incident involves harassing a young Black man (who probably worked at the college) and using him as an (implicitly sexual and homophobic) punishment for a White man.

The college patrol that was organized by Lieutenant Verner in the 1860s (discussed earlier) is highly relevant here, as the effort to police Black bodies was clearly based upon responding to the presumed danger of Black men and White women interacting; while the alleged “rude” comments are not specified by Shaw, it seems clear that any interaction between the two individuals (if such an interaction even happened) would have been read by Verner and other White men as an inherent threat to his daughter’s purity. As in the well-known case of Emmet Till (a fourteen year old Black boy who was murdered via lynching after being falsely accused of harassing a White woman), the violent and often homicidal policing of Black people motivated by White supremacist understandings of sexuality have been common since White people began enslaving Black people, and have continued centuries after the end of legal enslavement (Johnson 2017).

Related examples of violent, often homicidal policing by White people based on imagined concepts of Black sexuality were not (and still are not) relegated to the 19th century. For instance, in 1956, the college co-hosted an interracial conference (Shepherd-Smith 2018), and a Black man named Calvin, who was preparing to join the college’s Board of Visitors, was invited “for the first time, not as a servant, but as a participant” in the Church-sponsored portion of the program (Tapia 2017, 8). Brenda Tapia, Calvin’s niece, specifically notes that many White women who attended the conference were obsessed with Calvin and “thought he was the cutest… he was their Denzel Washington, Nat King Cole rolled into one”; one woman in particular was “determined to get his attention” (Ibid., 9).

Despite the fact that Calvin, in Tapia’s words, “dealt with it as Black men were taught to deal with it” (Ibid.), his attempts to avoid the woman did not succeed - on the final day of the conference, Calvin was at a shop in town with other conference participants when this (unnamed) White woman sat on his lap and licked his ice cream cone. That night, members of the KKK came after Calvin, shooting and injuring him before he was able to escape, and then proceeded to burn three crosses in Davidson - one on Calvin’s front lawn, one on the college football field, and one on Chamber’s lawn near the Dean of Students’ office (Ibid., 10). These two situations not only exemplify the violent policing of Black men’s perceived sexuality resulting in physical violence, but also point to the significant role of White women in instigating such situations and in provoking vicious responses to be carried out by White men within a paternalistic framework.

Background shows an excerpt from a book written by Ann and James H. Williams on the Davidson family at Rural Hill Plantation

Erasure of Black Individuals and their Experience

This section addresses the lack of available information concerning the Black individuals who were enslaved in service of the college before the 1870s, as well as the lack of discussion around Black labor more generally in official college materials.

Background shows the home of the college President, originally completed in 1837

Enslaved people who labored at or near the college are rarely mentioned by name, and if they are, it is often only by first or last name, not both. The college’s use of slave labor and dependence upon enslaved people is rarely if ever acknowledged in official college materials, such as timelines, brochures, official tours, or the college website. A list of some “servants” at the college between the 1870s and the 1950s has been compiled by the college’s Archives & Special Collections, mostly from the work of Mary Beaty’s work. Unfortunately, this information mostly addresses the college’s cost in hiring the servants, and contains little information about their wages or own experiences. The use of the term “servant” (in accordance with Presbytarian tradition) to refer to enslaved people and subsequent generations of laborers not only downplays the inherently coercive and violent nature of enslavement, but also blurs the line between and enslaved and contract or wage laborers, meaning the nature of an individual’s relationship to the college is not always clear (Beaty 1988; Yi and Mellin 2018). Locations that were built by or housed enslaved people - such as the President's house, shown here - are not visibly identified as such. For more about the President's house, see the "Disorienting & Reorienting" Tour.

Background shows a photograph of the college's Black male staff during an unspecified period in the 20th century

These are only a few of the many trends that contribute to an institutional denial of the true nature of enslavement and the physical and psychological violence it was predicated upon. Despite this deliberate erasure, valuable information does exist. The film “Always Part of the Fabric” (DC Archives 2015) discusses some of the ways that the college has relied on Black labor, and identifies a Black man named Bagwell and two Black women named Sarah and Mary who are known to have worked on college grounds, as they were enslaved by the Morrison family for at least as long as Robert Hall Morrison remained president. It also discusses references to enslaved people found in letters and notes belonging to college administrators and professors. To view this documentary or its textual supplement, visit <http://libraries.davidson.edu/archives/always-part-of-the-fabric>.

The writings of Omar ibn Said (some of which are held by the college) provide a highly informative first-hand account of life under enslavement; although Said, a Western African man who was born in present-day Senegal and enslaved in the Carolinas, did not live in Davidson, his work challenges many assumptions about the inability of enslaved people to read, write, and record their experiences.

The students of Dr. Dennie’s AFR 329 “Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic” have highlighted enslaved women in North Carolina whose experiences doubtlessly overlap with and connect to those of Black women in Davidson. Indeed, some explicit connections are drawn, such as the case of an enslaved woman named Vina and her four children being contracted to Margaret Torrance of the Cedar Grove Plantation, which is located in the area of present-day Huntersville (Bradford 2019). These students’ valuable work touches on a variety of topics, including the complex legal and social codes of the 19th century, Black womens’ fight for emancipation, the role of White women in establishing and maintaining slavery, current legacies of enslavement evident in United States prisons, and more. For more details about the course and primary source analyses, visit the college Archives’ blog entries April 13th through May 30th, 2019 at <http://libraries.davidson.edu/aroundthed/>.

And Beyond

The themes discussed here are patterns that emerge from and can be traced through Davidson’s history; they are a way of analyzing and understanding certain incidents and the ideology which contributed to them, but are not intended to be a conclusive classification system. These patterns arise from a much larger collection of events that have contributed to an environment where racism and anti-Blackness is pervasive and racial tensions are not addressed by the institution, nor is the institution made to feel accountable. The events discussed in this final section are intended to provide more information regarding the racist climate on campus and in the surrounding area.

Background shows the lawn in front of Dorm Row as it appears on a college postcard owned by Henry T. Lilly, one of the namesakes of the college's Lilly Gallery

1863 - Despite the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, no enslaved people in the town of Davidson were released from enslavement (Shepherd-Smith 2018)

1879 - Davidson was incorporated as a town, and records indicate that Black residents could vote if they paid a $1 poll tax; however, this right was revoked by 1900 (Ibid.).

1959 - The Board of Trustees issued a statement declaring that, despite the passage of Brown vs. Board of Education, the college would not accept Black students (Davidson College 1990, 7-8).

1961 - Responding to social pressure to integrate from some students and faculty, the Board of Trustees narrowly passed a measure to “integrate” Davidson College (Ibid., 8); however, only foreign-born African men were accepted, as they were apparently seen as “less threatening” and less political than African-Americans (Kelley 1991).

1962 - The first African student, Benoit Nzengu from Zaire, was enrolled at the college (Davidson College 1990, 7).

1964 - The first African-American man, Wayne Cromwell, was enrolled at the college (Ibid., 8-9).

1973 - Although White women with family connections had been attending classes at the college since the 1890s, women of any race were accepted as full students in 1973. Julia Deck, Denise Fanuiel, Debra Kyle, and Marian Perkins were the first four Black women to be enrolled at the college (DC Archives, date unknown).

1985 - The KKK marched through Davidson; the campus organized events in response, which attracted many participants from the town, but there does not seem to have been a collective discussion regarding the presence of the KKK or an acknowledgment of the college’s historical role in accommodating KKK ideology (Nagella 1996, 3).

1986-7 - Multiple incidents of Black men being profiled are recorded (Mukenge 1999).

1993 - Charles Brooks (Class of 1993) completed his senior thesis “Another Day in Paradise,” which included anonymous interviews with other Black students who discuss the racism and trauma they experienced at the college (Davidson College 1996, 7-8).

2003 - The slogan “KKK” was painted on 2-3 locations on the walkway and exterior walls of the college laundry building (currently the Residence Life Office and Lula Bell’s Resource Center (Njie 2003). For more about this incident, see <tour>.

Created By
SBM Mellin

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