In the spring of 2020, my colleagues and I did something that Elon, along with most other higher education institutions, failed to: We asked Black students what they needed. We then turned candid conversations into seven action items, one of which being “remove any paintings and photographs of historical perpetrators of social injustice and racial inequity currently present at Elon Law.” This action item made reference to the oil painting of former Greensboro Mayor Jim Melvin that hung in Elon Law’s Cemala Foundation Commons before being relocated to a conference room used by our dean.
In addition to this particular action item, we asked the following of Elon Law:
Be proactive in acknowledging the injustices that impacts its students and citizens in its local community, and support advocacy efforts to counter those injustices.
Support its Black students by offering additional counseling services.
Prioritize educating non-Black faculty, staff, administration and students on how to support efforts to combat social injustice and inequity.
Hire a director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion devoted and trained to address these issues.
Commit to continuously hiring diverse faculty and administration and appoint more diverse members to Elon Law’s Advisory Board.
And create a better safe space or common space that actually reflects our culture and values.
My colleagues and I worked collaboratively with several members of Elon’s administration, faculty and staff to implement each of the seven action items — many of which were accomplished. The removal of Melvin’s portrait was obviously our sticking point. Today, its removal means something different, something more to me than it had when I initially advocated on behalf of my colleagues, many of them North Carolina natives.
I have expressed multiple times in interviews that Melvin’s words and actions (or inactions) surrounding the Greensboro Massacre perpetuate the erasure of Black history. I stand by this, but the consequences of this erasure extend beyond the walls of Elon Law. Melvin’s words and actions of those in his employ speak to the disregard for human life since marchers were not warned, despite city personnel’s “extensive foreknowledge of the racist, violent attack planned against the marchers by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party with the assistance of a paid Greensboro Police Department informant … .” (apology issued by Greensboro’s City Council in 2020); it speaks to the dehumanization of marginalized groups with how these victims and anti-Klan protesters were vilified (the film documentaries “Greensboro’s Child” by Andy Coon and “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth” by Adam Zucker); and the efforts to cover it up speak to the perpetual erasure of Black American history that allows for it to repeat itself (Coon and Zucker films).
The story of the Greensboro Massacre is not mine to tell, as apologies from Melvin and the Greensboro Police Department would not be mine to accept. Instead, I write here to uplift the experiences and voices of survivors and family members of victims, the activists and people on the ground who have worked and continue to work tirelessly to right this wrong, and to uplift Black people who are coping with vicarious trauma as a result of this massacre and other racial violence.
Racism and racial violence have not only persisted, but thrived, in America since the Greensboro Massacre. Why? Because the ugliest parts of our history are treated like a dirty secret, or old news, or someone else’s problem. And it’s hard to tell when it’s repeating itself when we’ve never known the full story. We cannot begin to heal a community, a city, a country until we reconcile with our own history and the roles we played in it.
Words matter (see the Jan. 6 insurrection). Portraits matter (see Georgia lawmakers sign a voter-suppression bill into law under a painting of a slave plantation). It all matters.
There is more work to be done, beyond the seven action items. This was never an Elon problem, this is an American problem. And I challenged and continue to challenge my institution because we have a responsibility to make a difference where we can.
I do not accept this portrait and its place in a school that boasts a diverse and progressive program. But like I said, the consequences of the Greensboro Massacre extend beyond the walls of Elon Law.