Fact Friday 414 - An Update on Davidson College's Ties to Slavery

Fact Friday 414 - An Update on Davidson College's Ties to Slavery

Happy Friday!

Our initial Fact Friday on this topic dates back to September 2020. 

This week's Fact Friday comes to you from a recent opinion piece by Davidson College alum and professor, Issac Bailey in the Charlotte Observer. 


Davidson College announced Nov. 7, 2023 that it will keep the Chambers name on its central academic building. Maxwell Chambers was a slave owner whose gift in 1855 may have kept the college from closing. The decision came after lengthy examination into how the school could acknowledge its ties to slavery while also preserving a portion of its history.
Christopher Record/Davidson College

As a Davidson College graduate, former Alumni Association Board member and current professor, I’m proud of Davidson today for setting a path others should follow when trying to earnestly contend with unsavory origins. And I’m sad. And disappointed. I’m proud because the college assigned serious people to examine our relationship to the peculiar institution that was race-based slavery. I’m sad because of what was uncovered.

Issac Bailey

The college has long believed untrue things about itself. The work by Hilary Green, Davidson’s public historian and James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies, has now made it untenable to hold fast to those myths. Early in its life, the college was saved by maybe the largest gift in its history (inflation-adjusted) from an enslaver whose donation included five enslaved black people — a man who earned his fortune by foreclosing on plantations and profiting from the sale of human beings. Unlike earlier tales told that denied the college’s role in the Civil War, we now know Davidson sold a factory to the Confederate States of America, which became a Confederate prison camp. The place where I studied, where I work, the place I love, was a direct contributor to a cause meant to advance the idea that people like me were destined by God to be enslaved by white people. We’ve long known early presidents of the college, as well as faculty members and others, were enslavers. It’s just that we are now understanding the full scope of our relationship to slavery. That college trustees entrusted such an assignment to a historian as accomplished as Green showed it was willing to sincerely reckon with our past.

But I’m disappointed because the man at the center of the darkest part of the college’s history, Maxwell Chambers, will continue being honored in maybe the most important part of campus. His name will not be removed from the building that serves as the center of academic life. A few years ago, Davidson joined other institutions in reckoning with its past. That led to a commission which documented our connections to slavery. I applauded that decision then. I applaud it today even though I believe not renaming Chambers was a missed opportunity and sends a signal that our commitment to truth-telling is tepid in some areas even though it is bold in many others, including enormously important and impressive steps the college is taking to acknowledge our painful origins and to ensure we will be better for it going forward. I spoke with Erwin Carter, a 1979 Davidson alum, the only Black man who graduated in his class, a result of Davidson’s previous embrace of segregation. He headed up the naming committee. He went into the process convinced Chambers must be renamed. He came out of it convinced the name should remain. “This history isn’t necessarily about Maxwell Chambers,” Carter told me. “Several people, benefactors, presidents, faculty, trustees, so many people at Davidson basically up to the Civil War were very much involved in the institution of slavery. Also, we definitely saw this process as a big opportunity to focus a lot of the attention on education.”

The committee established for the first time a process to determine if a person’s name should be honored on a building, scholarship, or any other way, as well as under what exceptional circumstances a name should be removed. The removal factors include assessing whether keeping the name would interfere with the ability to teach, live or work at the college; if it’s reflective of the college’s historical fabric; how central the offensive behavior was to the namesake’s life; if there is sufficient evidence of the odious conduct; if the name was chosen for reasons not related to that conduct; and can the college tell its full story without the name. “It’s heavy stuff, man,” Carter said. It is. College officials convinced me the process they used to arrive at this decision was ethical and thorough, that Davidson’s push towards substantive racial reconciliation will continue. For that, I’m proud. They didn’t convince me we have to continue honoring Chambers to do so. I know fellow alumni who would have criticized the college had the name been changed, claimed it would have been erasing history. But that would have been a superficial charge. We don’t have to forever honor dishonorable men to be true to our past. The goal is to learn from history, not be beholden to it. Davidson has taken significant steps in the right direction. I just wish we had taken one more.

Issac Bailey is a McClatchy Opinion writer in North and South Carolina.



"I'm proud Davidson examined its ties to slavery, but saddened by the result," by Issac Bailey, Charlotte Observer, November 7, 2023.  


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“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin

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