In the wake of recent events within the Virginia state government, multiple universities in North Carolina are taking part in a sweeping review of old yearbooks and photographs. These reviews are part of a larger effort to make sure that any questionable images, such as students with blackface or other disturbing images, be ackowledged and dealt with. Elon University is one of the schools taking part in this self-evalution, as is Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C. Students, teachers and library workers at Elon are all involved with this project, and are doing their part to make sure that the university remembers its past.

A photo from the Sigma Phi Beta fraternity yearbook page in Elon's 1957 yearbook. (Courtesy of Elon University)

The Committee on Elon History and Memory includes a mixture of 12 faculty, staff and students who have the goal of sustaining and continuing the job of engaging the university community in an ongoing conversation about our institutional history, as well as strategies for collection in the Elon University Archives. According to committee Chair Charles Irons, the committee was actually formed prior to the yearbook issue coming to light.

"The committee predated the question about yearbooks, and the yearbook part is only incidental to the life of the committee," Irons explained. "It's the committee on Elon History and Memory, which we (University officials) asked for a little over a year ago. President Connie Book, one of the first things she did over the summer was call the committee in to being and it has the much broader question about looking at the ways Elon has told its story over time, ways that we have left a lot of stories out, a lot of people out, and ways that we might do better in the future."

Why is it important for Elon to review material from its past?

All previous Elon yearbooks are kept in the archives section of Belk Library.

Many members of the Elon community supported the idea that it is important to learn from these past events if we are to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

"It just helps us to learn more about a world that was before our time," said Elon Student Body President Kenneth Brown Jr. "It lets us to know what was the social norms of the time in the past, and just looking at the evolution of Elon and the evolution of an institution just seeing how far we’ve come, while given that there's more work that we have to do. How far we've come from just a long way. While yes, opening a co-ed school back in 1889 was unheard of in the south or anywhere, it’s still like the racial implication and not having a black student come until the 1960s and stuff like that."

Irons echoed that sentiment, emphasizing the importance of an institutions past on their image. "The stories that we choose to tell about ourselves indicate who we are, who we think we are and who we hope to be," said Irons. "Every college and university in the United States right now, and I think it's even broader than higher education, in our country right now, is examining their past in a critical way and thinking about the stories and the myths that we've told about ourselves."

"The stories that we choose to tell about ourselves indicate who we are, who we think we are, and who we hope to be."
— Charles Irons, Committee Chair

As Elon Archivist Libby Coyner said, despite the fact that many Elon students are not from North Carolina or even the South in general, it's still important for them to understand the history behind racism and racist images that were prevalent in the South less than a century ago. Elon accepted 10,729 students in 2018, with 1,698 choosing to enroll. (Source: Elon Facts and Figures) Although most students are only here for four years, it's important for them to take in not only Elon and its history, but the surrounding area and its history as well. This can help lead to a greater understanding of how your college or university has made strides toward inclusion and away from prejudice. Brown also emhphasized this sentiment, saying that who we are as students and who we are as a University is largely dependent on our understanding of the past.

"I think it’s important for everyone to kind of know because I think Elon plays a big part in other people's stories and depending on how much they decide to be involved in organizations or Elon in general, it’s just important to know about the school you're going into where it's been and where it’s going," explained Brown. "What it presently stands for now, it's important for students, what they do with the information is up to them, but it's just important for them to kind of understand where the school has been, just to kinda have that knowledge."

What should we do with controversial findings?

Similar to the Silent Sam controversy at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, an investigation of this nature raises questions about what should be done with any content that Elon finds to be at odds with its vision and beliefs. Many people have argued for Silent Sam to be taken down and destroyed, while others argue that it should stay where it is. Another commonly talked about option is to remove the statue and place it in a museum, although the cost of the proposed museum far exceeded what many at the university were willing to spend.

" I think you keep it around," said Brown when asked about what Elon should do with any controversial findings. "Whether you put it up somewhere or whether you just have a database or something that people can check out, that's up to whoever, but getting rid of it is erasing a piece of our history and whether we like it or not that we have acknowledge and so keeping it around it helps us to realize where we’ve been and also hopefully gives us some steps on what not to do and where to go." Irons offered a bit more complicated answer when prompted about what to do with such findings, saying simply, "it depends."

"If it's a monument to inequality erected for the purpose of sustaining and perpetuating and symbolizing inequality, I think it's appropriate to remove it," Irons said. "If it's a historical artifact that is a way of retaining our past and telling our story, even if it's an unpleasent story, you have to keep it."

"I think we definitely should keep it," said Libby Coyner. "That's always a really important ethical question about whether the material that you have documents a part of your history that you don't like to think about and whether it might cause harm to people to consume it versus whether it's just us reckoning with our past. And so, in this case, I definitely think that we of course will keep it, we will continue to provide access to it" Currently, all yearbooks from previous years can be found in the archives of Belk Library, as well as in Elon's online database.

What are the next steps?

While thumbing through old yearbooks to find content that may be in conflict with our vision for the future may be a good first step, it is hardly the only thing that Elon intends to do to drive home their message of inclusivity and diversity.

"Just helping to continue to support the systems and structures in place that already do work in diversity and inclusion," said Brown. "Whether that's the Center for Access and Success in their initiatives, or through CREDE or any other departments that kind of works with diversity and inclusion, just making sure that we're putting our money where our mouth is, making sure that there's different programs and initiatives and that if they need more staff members to able to go out and to hire new people and just continue to support the work that they’ve done."

"I know one of the ways that I think about a lot is that I think we’ll often think about this material as being in our past and we're still creating history," Libby Coyner said. "I think that it's really critical that we continue to collect related to what is happening on our campus. No doubt, things that are happening on our campus, right now, we might look the other way. And 50 years from now some other archivists who come after I'm long gone will find this stuff and say, 'Oh my God.' So, I think that just continuing to collect and understanding that we're still part of the same kind of cycle is important."