With ‘Hands,’ Davidson College honors a painful past and embraces its future
Davidson College opens a new phase of its 186-year history with the inauguration of a new president Friday. And it’s marking the occasion by announcing it will build a $4 million monument to a long overlooked part of its past.
The college’s oldest buildings sit in a grassy quad, surrounded by towering oaks. Their worn bricks tell a story that has only recently come to light.
“We have an invoice from the archives that show that there were 250,000 bricks that were created by enslaved people whose labor was loaned or rented to the college by their enslavers,” said Virgil Fludd, a 1980 Davidson College graduate who chairs a special commission on commemorating the college’s history of slavery and racism.
“Loaned or rented,” he said. “I mean, let’s be honest. Their labor was stolen. For the benefit of Davidson College. And for the most part those people’s names may never be known.”
Fludd spoke at a ceremony Thursday unveiling plans for a monument to people who helped build Davidson despite enslavement or discrimination.
It’s part of a national reckoning on race, particularly in institutions of higher education. Doug Hicks became Davidson’s 19th president in August, moving into a president’s house that was built partly by enslaved people. He is being formally inaugurated Friday.
“It felt so important to me and my colleagues on the board of trustees to weave in this work on the commemoration, into our look forward into the future, to name our past, to be honest about where we’ve been in order that we can go forward together toward an even more just and equitable Davidson,” he said Thursday.
Hicks says that work includes historic research, bringing in more diverse faculty, expanding the curriculum to confront past and current injustices, paying staff a living wage and building stronger relationships between the college and Davidson’s Black communities. The memorial will be the symbolic and visual focal point.
Embracing the entire community
Hicks announced Thursday that the college has already raised $3.25 million toward the estimated $4 million cost of creating a memorial plaza. Artist Hank Willis Thomas worked with the architectural firm Perkins&Will to create a plan for two huge bronze hands that will rise from the ground, enfolding a space where college officials hope students, faculty and members of the community will gather. The working title is “With These Hands.”
The location, within sight of Main Street and downtown Davidson, was chosen intentionally, and not just for the proximity to historic buildings. Architect Malcolm Davis said enslaved people living in the 19th century are not the only ones whose often unseen hands shaped Davidson.
“Even once you look beyond sort of the hard labor, hands played a part in cooking on this campus, or preparing sheets or cleaning,” he said, adding that staff working in the college’s kitchens and dorms often offered support to Davidson students.
“And those same hands then went home to places in this community to conduct other sort of loving things,” he said. “And so although there’s a lot of harshness around the toiling of hands and the labor, there’s also some really beautiful things that came from those hands.”
So college officials say they want the entire community to see the memorial and feel welcome to take a closer look.
The symbolism of hands
Thomas says when he thinks about the work, “I think about Bill Withers’ song, 'Grandma’s Hands.' " The song, released in 1971, describes the hands of a woman who clapped in church, soothed, scolded and protected.
Davis spoke of a similar theme.
“I think all of us can sort of remember those times when we saw grandparents whose hands were so expressive of energies and things,” he said. “They didn’t always disclose or complain when they came home, to have you sitting on that lap, but you could see it. And a kid could reach out and touch Grandpa Hank’s hands and feel those divots. And those are the kind of things that get expressed in the work.”
President Hicks said the college’s Board of Trustees has approved moving forward on the design of the monument.
“Our hope is that two years from now, we won’t be sitting in the Duke Family Performance Hall but we’ll all be out on the historic lawn of Davidson to dedicate an actual site, with these hands in the center of it,” he said.