Campus Briefs December 2021
Upon the recommendation of Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the University’s Board of Trustees honored McClinton and Owl with a vote on Nov. 4 to add their names to two buildings whose names were removed in July 2020. McClinton Residence Hall replaces the former Aycock Residence Hall, while Henry Owl Building is the new name for the former Carr Building. “Both Mr. Owl and Professor McClinton are deeply rooted in the history of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Naming these buildings for each of them distinguishes them as people of impact on our campus,” said Board of Trustees Chair David L. Boliek Jr.
The names of these Tar Heel trailblazers add diversity to the landscape and advance the first Carolina Next strategic initiative, Build Our Community Together, by promoting belonging throughout the University community. “Hortense McClinton and Henry Owl were trailblazing pioneers who left an indelible legacy at Carolina. They embody the values that define our University, and naming these buildings after them marks an important step in building a campus community where everyone feels that they belong and can thrive,” said Guskiewicz.
Genna Rae McNeil, professor emerita of history, encouraged her audience to study the work of African American historians in order to find ways to move American society forward during the 29th annual Sonja Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture on Nov. 9. The Stone Lecture is an annual program hosted each fall by the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture & History, named for the beloved faculty member after her untimely passing in 1991. Previous Stone lecturers have included Angela Davis, Edwidge Danticat and Nnenna Freelon.
McNeil said she was “honored and humbled beyond adequate expression” to give the 2021 Stone Lecture. She was friends with Stone, who came to Carolina as an assistant professor in 1974, the same year McNeil joined the faculty.
The lecture, titled “‘It’s in Your Hands’: Lessons from History and Critical Race Theory,” could be viewed as a parting syllabus from McNeil, who retired from Carolina on July 1, after 36 years in the College of Arts & Sciences’ history department.
“I’m under no illusion that seeing and facing the truths about the lives and struggles of oppressed people and the ills of this American society will bring forth the changes necessary to rid the nation of systemic racism and economic exploitation and set it on a straight path to a society that guarantees freedom and justice to all,” McNeil said. “But what I know for certain is that James Baldwin was right when he declared, not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
As a result of systemic oppression, there are fewer than 200 native Cherokee speakers in North Carolina. To keep the language alive and pass it to the next generation, UNC-Chapel Hill researcher and Eastern Band Cherokeean citizen Benjamin Frey has teamed up with computer scientists Mohit Bansal and Shiyue Zhang to create a new translation model and grow the literary library of works available in Cherokee.
Imagine if the language you speak at home to communicate with your family and friends — the language you think in — was prohibited from use at school. This is not a problem that native English speakers in America ever face. They simply think, open their mouths, and speak, answer a question, share their thoughts, and communicate with their peers, most of whom also primarily speak English. But language hasn’t always been so singular.
Before the arrival of Europeans, around 300 distinct mutually unintelligible languages were spoken in North America. Now only 187 remain. “Cherokee is a language that I didn’t inherit from my mother because of the violence that my grandmother was subjected to at federal boarding schools,” says Benjamin Frey, assistant professor in the Department of American Studies. “She was beaten for speaking the language and had her mouth washed out with soap, so she didn’t pass the language on because she didn’t want anybody else to be treated that way.”
While there are upwards of 2,000 speakers globally, most in Oklahoma, there are fewer than 200 native Cherokee speakers left locally. And Frey, a professor in the American studies department, wants to change that. Most recently, he teamed up with computer science researchers Shiyue Zhang and Mohit Bansal to create a new translation tool similar to Google Translate. They hope the tool is eventually accurate enough to translate entire novels, providing children in immersion schools with popular children’s literature, like the “Harry Potter” series, in Cherokee.
“One of the things I’ve seen is that people will frequently ask for translations, and speakers are generally happy to give them. But larger translation projects really take up a lot of time and energy for our speakers who are mostly elderly,” Frey says. “It was one of those situations where I thought, ‘Well, this is all tremendously important and amazing work. Wouldn’t it be more efficient and beneficial if we could do it faster?‘”
Restoring a veteran’s honor
When Mount Airy native John Spencer served in South Vietnam in 1969 as an Army armored reconnaissance specialist in the infantry, he was hit in the neck by shrapnel. But it wasn’t just the enemy that presented challenges for Spencer abroad. Being a Black man in the Army provided its own struggles, including enduring racism and discrimination from a leader who called him lazy, conniving and much worse, he recalled.
His unit would ultimately unilaterally discharge Spencer with an other than honorable discharge for minor infractions. Spencer was told by this unit that the discharge would be upgraded once he was stateside again.
That review never happened.
“When I landed in Washington, the atmosphere and function changed,” he recalled. “I was stripped of my uniform. My dog tags were taken away from me. I was given civilian clothes and sent to the airport and waited for a standby flight. When I had gotten to Washington, I began to feel like I was some kind of criminal.”
He was sent home to North Carolina, disqualified for veterans benefits. He was eligible for the Purple Heart but never received it. He had earned a coveted combat infantryman badge and a Vietnam War Cross that he was never awarded. Ashamed, he kept the details of his discharge a secret from his friends and family for nearly 50 years.
Then, three years ago, Spencer met with Tar Heels from the UNC School of Law’s Military and Veterans Law Clinic and told his story. That group of Carolina Law students at the clinic advocated for Spencer and worked to restore his federal veteran status.
Spencer’s case is just one of dozens that the UNC School of Law’s Military and Veterans Law Clinic has taken on since John Brooker ’03 (JD) became director of the program in 2018. The program provides pro bono legal support for low-income former service members who are fighting for an upgrade or correction to their military discharge status. Veterans with an other than honorable discharge are left without access to benefits and health care, even when health issues stem from their service.
Brooker, a clinical associate professor of law with more than 20 years of active-duty service in the Army, said it wasn’t uncommon for service members to face discrimination and receive other than honorable discharges for minor offenses during the Vietnam War. “We try to get those former service members veteran status,” he said. “That opens the door to life-saving veteran benefits that many should have had all along. But, as important as that, it restores the honor that they felt was taken from them. They were separated with a type of discharge that literally says they don’t have honor.”