To the Editor:

At The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we believe that arts and culture and the humanities are central to robust, heterogeneous democratic communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking. This commitment is a hallmark of our work and animates and guides our decisions every day.

Our higher-education program worked over the course of 2019 on a significant grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to develop a campuswide effort to reckon with UNC’s historic complicity with slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and memorialization of the Confederacy. After these many months of close collaboration, on December 2, we decided not to recommend the grant. Our decision was prompted by the university’s announcement that it would give $2.5 million to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans to protect and display the confederate statue known as Silent Sam.

The news that the university would direct educational funds to re-enshrining a symbol of the Confederacy — erected, incidentally, at the entrance to the campus in 1913, some 60 years after the fall of the Confederacy and toppled by members of the UNC community in 2018 — was and is shocking. From our perspective, with this still-bewildering news that UNC has given a sum that could be spent on so many positive things, including the very work our grant was to support, we decided to stop the grant process. This decision was not easy because we believed in the proposed work that the grant was to support.

Mellon is committed to telling untold and marginalized American stories in space and place. We have recently begun to provide significant support to new grantees such as the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the National Trust for Historic Preservation African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which help memorialize African American stories lost, unattended, buried, and distorted. These rich American histories give lie to the racist narratives that Confederate statues represent and ennoble.

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Many members of the UNC Chapel Hill community continue to protest the university’s decision. The cost of venerating symbols of hate is sometimes nothing less than human lives, as we saw, for example, in Charlottesville in 2017. We are trying with our work to find myriad ways to say that the richness of American history, even when shadowed, can be brought to the fore so we can better confront our past and shape our future.

Elizabeth Alexander
President
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
New York