At the end of the final episode of the 1619 podcast, Nikole Hannah-Jones chokes up as she looks out onto the water where the first ships brought enslaved Africans to colonial Virginia.
“The one thing I didn’t realize when I started this project was how raw everything still is when you’re Black in this country,” she says. “And white people always want to tell you to get over it and to move on, but there’s never been a reckoning for what was done, and it’s hard to move on. And just spending so much time thinking about it constantly, I just realized that the wounds are still very raw. They’re still there.”
The show premiered in 2019 upon publication of The 1619 Project in The New York Times Magazine. It was about 18 months before the board of trustees at Hannah-Jones’s alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, refused to hire her with tenure for her position as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism and then refused to reconsider that decision despite the threat of a lawsuit and the repeated endorsement of Hannah-Jones from the journalism school faculty. The controversy stems from this 2019 body of work.
Hannah-Jones’s story is not unique. In 2019, there were eight Black women serving as full, tenured professors at UNC-CH, and 23 tenured associate professors, a total of 31 Black women with tenure, down from a high of 32 in 2017. White men, on the other hand, held 337 tenured full professorships and 148 tenured associate professor positions that year—485 tenured professors, down from a high of 535 in 2017.
At public and private universities, in North Carolina and across the country, at predominately white institutions but sometimes at HBCUs, Black professors—especially ones with other marginalized identities, do not receive tenure at the same rate as do their white counterparts.
Sonja Haynes Stone, now the namesake of UNC’s Center for Black Culture and History, came to the university in 1974, a few years after the Black Student Movement had demanded the creation of an African American Studies program. She held two master’s degrees and earned her PhD in the year after joining the faculty.
She was Director of the Curriculum of the African American Studies program. She helped develop the National Council of Black Studies. She received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to start the Southeastern Black Press Institute. She was on committees for UNC’s Black cultural center, the recruitment of Black faculty, and the Campus Y, and served as an advisor to the Black Student Movement.
It wasn’t enough.
In 1979, the university’s chancellor, provost, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences denied her tenure.
“Stone has fallen victim to a growing trend,” Black students wrote in a letter to The Daily Tar Heel. “Across the country more and more qualified black professors are being denied tenure at institutions of higher education. This trend is not only a slap in the face to black scholars, but in the long run it will be a severe constraint on the quality of education available to the youth of the nation.”
Stone appealed, and her tenure dossier went before the UNC Board of Trustees. Two hundred students crammed into Morehead Planetarium to support her.
Harry Amana, the first Black professor hired by UNC’s journalism school, was interviewed by Stone during his recruitment. He came to the university the same year her tenure battle began.
“They took it to an outside arbitrator, and it was decided that the people who evaluated her work knew nothing about African American Studies,” Amana told the INDY. “Her packet was sent outside the university to noted scholars and historians in the field of African American Studies, and that’s how she got the recommendation for tenure.”
The UNC Board of Trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors finally awarded Stone tenure, but with a catch: she was not given a promotion, and stayed an assistant professor.
“She was one of maybe two or three people on the whole campus who had tenure as an assistant professor,” Amana says. Stone wasn’t named an associate professor until 1984. She was still an associate professor when she died unexpectedly in August 1991.
Sharon P. Holland, now a distinguished professor in American Studies at UNC-CH, has moved around a lot. She is often an outlier, and not just because of her race: Holland, who is queer and gender nonconforming, says that additional identity made her an exception even among Black professors.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been one of a handful—if not the only—out Black women on campus,” Holland says. “And in several of the places where I either was a tenure track or gained tenure, I was actually the first tenured black person full-time in that department.”
As a postdoctoral researcher at Wesleyan, Holland recalls the chair of her department told her that she and other post-doctoral students were supposed to be at the office from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday except Friday. One weekend, she left town to workshop a chapter with some classmates from graduate school. They got snowed in, and Holland had to miss work that day.
“I called the chair, and she just chewed me out for like, half an hour about me being irresponsible,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was ridiculous, but I didn’t know that; I was a postdoc, fresh out of grad school.”
Holland worked up the nerve to bring this slight to the director of their program. It was through him that she found out that there was no such rule requiring postdoctoral students to be at the office for a set amount of time.
From there, Holland decided to end her position early to make up for lost time, and headed to Stanford. While there, her close friend and colleague, Lora Romero, died by suicide. They’d grown apart in recent years; since Holland was queer, and Romero was bisexual, others in the department assumed that a romantic relationship had fizzled, and led to Romero’s death.
“It allowed certain members of the department to basically say, ‘Well, if Sharon hadn’t treated Lora so badly, Lora wouldn’t have killed herself,’” Holland says. “I kind of felt held responsible for that, and so I had to leave. You can’t stay. You can’t stay when people are being not only ungenerous, but also stupid and homophobic.”
Other incidents at other universities were in line with the microaggressions Holland experienced: a secretary not allowing her into a meeting that was being held for her specifically, a potential hire assuming she was an office manager instead of on the hiring committee.Her work was also undervalued in a literal sense—she says she took a $35,000 pay cut when she left a job at Duke University to come to UNC-CH. In 2020, The Daily Tar Heel reported that Holland had previously considered leaving if the university did not increase her pay at UNC, and give her the resources to create the Critical Ethnic Studies Collective.
While Holland beat the odds, she still feels the weight of her experiences, and acknowledges how few distinguished Black professors there are. Sometimes, like with the case of Stone, or with the recent death of professor Randall Kenan, the pool just keeps getting smaller.
Hannah-Jones’s, Stone’s, and Holland’s experiences are not singular struggles for recognition, nor does it appear that there was a time when these struggles weren’t present for Black women working in academia.
In 2013, a public relations professor named Queenie Byars and her husband, Napoleon, decided to retire from the UNC-CH journalism school after Queenie was denied tenure; despite getting faculty approval and her decades of experience doing PR for the U.S. Air Force and teaching at Carolina, an outside board composed of professionals from across the U.S. denied her.
This problem also exists at other universities in the Triangle.
North Carolina State University had nine Black women full professors and 10 Black women tenured associate professors in 2019. Duke University had eight and 12, respectively. Some Black women academics consider themselves lucky; Dr. Khalilah R. Johnson, an assistant professor on tenure track in the UNC School of Medicine, says she has supportive faculty members surrounding her who aren’t concerned with her outspokenness on racism in the university. Despite this, she’s constantly aware of the possibility that her public stances on issues like Silent Sam could mean backlash from the Board of Trustees.
“I exceed every benchmark really that the university puts forward, so on paper, it would seem that I shouldn’t have any issues,” Johnson says. “But the reality of it is I am a very public-facing academic. I have a reputation—good or bad—in some professional circles for being vocal, and I am aware that people at my institution know that. I think the possibility of not being promoted is real, but I can’t worry about that.”
Amana, similarly, says his tenure process in the 1970s was not as stressful as it was for others, since he had the support of the UNC-CH journalism school’s dean at the time.
We still don’t know what will become of Hannah-Jones’s position at UNC-CH. As of the publication of this story, she has not said whether she will still go to work in Carroll Hall this upcoming school year, as was planned.
In the meantime, the board’s decision is clearly driving a wedge further between UNC’s self-proclaimed investment in diversity and the reality of its academic environment. Lisa Jones, a world-renowned chemist, rescinded her candidacy for coming to UNC-CH after seeing the experience of Hannah-Jones. Lindsay Carbonell, an adjunct professor at the Hussman School, announced that she won’t be returning. Jones is a Black woman. Carbonell is white but cited Hannah-Jones’s treatment as her reason for leaving UNC.
“I feel that a premier university, in a state where my family’s blood is in the soil, is missing the opportunity to remain a premier university,” Holland says. “And when I say premier, I’m not talking about status. I’m talking about absolutely leading the way, and what we do—especially in this region and in this part of the world—what we do for our future as human beings. It is a profound lack of vision. People are concentrated, fixated, on what we can and cannot do, because 12 people, six people, eight people in a room have made it difficult. That’s more like the slavocracy than anything, and we need to break that legacy.”
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