A White Student’s Protest Art Focuses Attention on UNC’s Racial History

April 27, 2017

Courtesy of Jeanine Tatlock
The U. of North Carolina removed the name of a Klan leader from the geography building of the Chapel Hill campus, but rejected a bid to rename it for the black author Zora Neale Hurston. Instead the building became "Carolina Hall," leaving many people disappointed. Jeanine Tatlock, an MFA candidate, slyly rechristened the building for Hurston by fabricating an authentic-looking plaque bearing her name.

Coated in bronze paint, a plaque that appeared on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s geography building one day in March seemed to answer the demands of student activists.

Placed just above a plaque that bore the building’s official name, Carolina Hall, the new plaque offered a different history. Labeled "Zora Neale Hurston Hall," the plaque read: "We honor and remember all the African American students who studied at UNC unofficially before our university’s integration. Zora Neale Hurston was one of those students."

Its sudden appearance prompted giddy surprise among students and faculty members who had advocated that Hurston’s name replace that of William Saunders, a Ku Klux Klan leader. (The Board of Trustees instead opted for the more generic "Carolina Hall," in part because Hurston was never a registered student at the university, when it made the renaming decision, in 2015.)

So sophisticated was the plaque’s design, some questioned whether it might have been installed by the university itself.

Altha J. Cravey, an associate professor of geography who works in the building, posted on Facebook that she "ran downstairs to see if this was for real!" Ms. Cravey has been a longtime advocate for naming the building after Hurston.

"I want to publicly thank whoever did this. It made my day," Ms. Cravey said in the post. Others responded with incredulity:

"Holy crap! Who did this? Is facilities going to take it down?"

"Officially renamed?!"

"Wait, was this the University?"

The News & Observer, a Raleigh newspaper, even published an article on the plaque.

The university wasn’t behind the plaque, which was quickly removed. In fact, it was created as a protest art installment by a master of fine arts student, Jeanine Tatlock.

Ms. Tatlock’s art adds to protests that have gone on for many years. In her second semester at UNC, she’s new to the debate. And as a white artist, she says she’s aware of her status as an outsider to the narrative.

"I’m another white person also imposing my narrative, and now maybe I’m getting credit for this, even though I’m making plaques when other people and students of color and the Black Student Movement have been protesting about this since the ’70s," Ms. Tatlock said. "This is nothing novel that I’m doing."

In fact, using art as a form of activism has been common within UNC’s Hurston Hall movement, and in protests surrounding a monument to the Confederacy named "Silent Sam."

In 2015, 15 black students stood on the steps of Saunders Hall with nooses tied around their necks to demonstrate what Saunders would have done to them, holding signs such as, "Can you see me now?" and "Black lives matter."

A campus group called the Counter Cartography Collective has imagined what a map of the university grounds would look like if the tributes to white supremacists were no longer present, crossing out some of the names displayed on campus.

Persistent Artwork

With Ms. Tatlock’s plaque now removed, she said she hopes to create an enduring work of art, in which she continually recreates similar plaques and places them on campus again and again after they are removed. Before the "Hurston Hall" plaque, she had a similar project at the "Silent Sam" memorial.

Because some protesters have vandalized the memorial with graffiti messages such as "Black Lives Matter" and "murderer," cameras have been installed to monitor the tribute to alumni who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. It was spray painted earlier this month with the words "Love is understanding why others hate. Love>Hate.BLM."

Ms. Tatlock said the language at the Silent Sam memorial is vague. "In fact, it doesn’t even call the Civil War the Civil War. It just mentions the war of 1861 through 1865," she said. To clear up any confusion, she made a plaque and installed it. When she did, she said, officers saw "someone putting up a sign" on video surveillance, and came to see what was going on.

"But the plaque that I made was painted bronze to look like the original plaque, so they didn’t actually see where the sign was," Ms. Tatlock said. "They were really confused, and I didn’t tell them that there was a fake plaque there, and then they left. So then I was like, I bet I could leave this for a while and people might not notice."

Her mentor and professor in the studio arts department, Elin O. Slavick, said Ms. Tatlock has removed herself from her art by keeping it anonymous, which has ensured that resulting conversations would revolve around the concerns of black students, rather than her as an artist.

Ms. Slavick noted that controversy can arise when white artists take on work that revolves around the issues of people of color. She pointed to the artist Dana Schutz, whose depiction of Emmett Till’s mutilated face in the painting "Open Casket" stirred controversy.

Jina Valentine, an assistant professor in the studio art department, said that when she heard about Ms. Tatlock’s project, she encouraged her to engage with groups that were already advocates for Hurston Hall. When done the right way, Ms. Valentine said, she thinks white artists can play a role in advocating for people of color.

"I think Jeanine’s work comes from a very sincere and earnest place, and she has generally been aware of her position of privilege as a white woman," said Ms. Valentine, who is looking forward to the opportunity for the art department to take on the issue.

"Groups really should be looking to the art department for ideas on how to engage, performance techniques, maybe building new monuments," she said.

To engage with activists at UNC, Ms. Tatlock first took the "Black and Blue Tour," in which a professor in the African, African American and diaspora studies department guides an exploration of UNC’s racial history through campus landmarks. Then, she became involved in an emerging campus group of primarily geography graduate students and faculty members called Flock — Feminists Liberating Our Collective Knowledge.

Cycles of Protest

Pavithra Vasudevan, a geography graduate student and member of the group, said that because the geography department resides in Carolina Hall, the group has had a great interest in the name of the building and continues to advocate for it to change to Hurston Hall. Flock is working on a zine that will document generations of black student activism to demonstrate its cyclical nature.

"As geography grads and faculty, we were there when a lot of the protests were happening. And being there everyday, we were inspired," Ms. Vasudevan said. "We are a group of geographers so we are very attentive to how power operates in general in our work but also certainly in the places we work and earn traction from students."

When Ms. Tatlock’s plaque appeared on the building, Ms. Vasudevan said her peers in geography were surprised and excited, another example of "the kind of ways that art can intervene by stopping us in our tracks."

"It’s an incredible project she’s doing. That is part of what the Hurston Hall struggle is. The name itself is meant to capture this counterhistory that is erased from the campus."

Correction (4/28/2017, 4:42 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the campus group Flock was primarily made up of students. It is primarily made up of graduate students and faculty members. It also misquoted Ms. Vasudevan as saying, "As a geography class and faculty…" instead of what she actually said, "As geography grads and faculty…"

Clarification (4/27/2017, 12:07 p.m.): A previous version of this article, in characterizing the board's decision to rename the geography department's building as "Carolina Hall," did not include the university's rationale for rejecting the Hurston name — that she was never a registered student at UNC. The article has been updated to include this information.