GREENSBORO — For nearly nine decades, UNC-Greensboro displayed the Aycock name above the main entrance of its auditorium.
The name came down from the building two years ago. Now, a fuller accounting of the life and legacy of former North Carolina Gov. Charles B. Aycock is on display inside.
At a private ceremony Tuesday, the university opened “Etched in Stone? Governor Charles Aycock and the Power of Commemoration.” The permanent exhibit is on the second floor of the UNCG Auditorium. It’ll be open to the public periodically starting Wednesday.
The museum-quality project was developed by UNCG graduate students over the past two years. It puts in context the life and times of the man lionized in his day for supporting public education and reviled today for giving voice to white supremacy.
The exhibit opens a little more than two years after university trustees voted to remove the Aycock name from the building.
“We continue to hear that the removal of a name is an attempt to remove history,” Provost Dana Dunn said. “I think we want to make a strong statement that we’re not erasing history. I think the exhibit is probing that history so we can better understand it.”
The interactive exhibit wraps around a second-floor lobby that leads to the balcony seats. A full tour of the gallery — looking at all the photos, reading all the text, listening to all the recordings — should take about 45 minutes.
The exhibit spotlights some of the key moments of Aycock’s life — his fear-mongering that led to the Wilmington massacre in 1898; his election as governor two years later and his crusade for a suffrage amendment that helped lay the foundation for Jim Crow segregation throughout North Carolina; and his “Negro Problem” speech of 1903 in which Aycock gives full-throated support to “unending separation of the races.” Visitors can listen to a recording of the speech voiced by UNCG history professor Chuck Bolton.
A chart in the gallery also gives some context to Aycock’s reputation as the “Education Governor.” (His policies did support schools for black children, but the state spent more on teachers and buildings for white students.) A video shows how North Carolina textbooks changed their treatment of Aycock over the years. In audio recordings, UNCG graduates recall their memories of the auditorium during their times on campus.
The exhibit wraps up with a look at how N.C cities and institutions are dealing with the complicated legacies of people and causes that were once revered but have now fallen out of favor. Throughout, the exhibit wrestles with an overarching question: Who do we commemorate? And why?
“The big idea is that heroes change,” said Katherine Simmons, one of 10 UNCG graduate students who helped put together the exhibit. “People’s values change over the years, and the people we commemorate in the past don’t necessarily reflect the values that we support now.”
University trustees decided in 1928 to name its brand-new auditorium after Aycock, who two decades earlier had helped the college rebuild a dorm that burned down.
In 2016, after Duke and East Carolina universities removed the Aycock name from buildings on their campuses, the UNCG board voted to do the same with its 1,642-seat auditorium. Since then, Guilford County Schools has renamed Aycock Middle School, and residents of the Aycock historic district changed the name of their neighborhood.
UNCG’s renaming decision had a second part to it. Trustees wanted a permanent display that explained who Aycock was and what he stood for. Ten graduate students who entered UNCG’s museum studies program in 2016 got the assignment. All 10 will graduate in May with a master’s degree in history with a concentration in museum studies.
Benjamin Filene, former director of public history at UNCG, said his students put together a “nuanced” and “thoughtful” treatment of Aycock, who was not just a man of his time but an architect of an era.
“We’re not trying to judge Aycock,” said Filene, who in February was named chief curator of the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. “We’re trying to understand the complications of these legacies and to learn from them going forward.”