Goals and Scope

This project’s scope covers the current land occupied by Davidson College as well as the larger town, and relevant people, places, and events that influenced its creation and establishment from 1700 to today. The goal is to identify and trace legacies of colonialism and White supremacy integral to the foundation of the college and investigate the ways those legacies have been institutionalized at the school and continue to define Davidson College today. This consists of unearthing information that has been omitted from popular narratives about the town of Davidson and the college, and drawing explicit connections between those facts, events, and individuals in order to prompt an explicit recognition and deeper understanding of the past and how it has shaped and continues to shape our present.

The history of Davidson college, like that of nearly every other college and university in what is today the United States, is embedded within a longer and broader history of racial inequality. While the college is comparable in many ways to its neighbors and peer institutions, it also contains a specific history which has been written about extensively. Most of the existing scholarship on Davidson seeks to highlight that the college is exceptional, influential, and important; and it is well documented that all of these things are true. However, the aspects of the town and college that dominate these sources are generally the small size, the rural origins, and the property and accomplishments of relatively wealthy White citizens, most of whom were men. This project expands upon current histories of the college by highlighting the ways that the college’s land, reputation, money, and often-praised alumni were established through, and continue to benefit from, the displacement, enslavement, and exploitation of non-White peoples.

While the information outlined in this project is critical to all of those who live at or near the college so that we can be informed about our presence at this school, this project was originally conceived of by myself and Tian Yi as a way to address the disconnect felt by underrepresented students of color who are “sold” one particular version of the institution and find themselves experiencing a very different reality after arrival. For example, college pamphlets and webpages depict underrepresented students disproportionately, obscuring that Davidson College is a predominantly white institution, and often promote the image of a harmonious student body exempt from the racialized conflicts that shape our world. While my whiteness meant that I did not share these experiences, I chose to respond to them along with my collaborator, and worked to continue the project with the support of Davidson Research Initiative grant after Tian’s graduation. As a white student at Davidson College, I consider it ethically important to use the skills and knowledge I have developed here to participate in the work of uncovering, analyzing, and disseminating the more overlooked and unjust aspects of the college’s history and investigate how they have become integral parts of the institution over time. I have also drawn from exceptional work done by both Black and non-Black students of color at Davidson that directly addresses the experience of Black individuals throughout the college’s history, including numerous Davidsonian articles, Jonathan Shepherd-Smith’s timeline “Black Bodies on Davidson’s Campus,” and the work of Dr. Dennie and her AFR 329 students. I believe this project can contribute to the larger process of recovering the college’s full history and illuminating the significant impacts that history has on daily life at the college and in the town.  

By expanding this project through additional research and digital dissemination, I hope that it can provide knowledge about and context for the interpersonal and institutional boundaries faced by students of color at this school, while also asking White, non-Black, and non-Indigenous members of the campus community to confront the full history of the institution we inhabit, not just for the sake of acquiring knowledge, but also to inform our ethical orientations and actions. 

As with any project, there are limitations in its scope that are important to highlight. First, this investigation does not adequately address or describe the personal experiences of Black and Indigenous people who have historically been involved with the college and its land. For examples of such work related to Black individuals in and around Davidson, please see Dr. Dennie’s AFR 329 class projects, Dr. Stremlau’s HIS 306 class website, the oral history collection Shared Stories, or selections from the Davidson Microagressions Project. For examples of such work related to Indigenous groups in the area including the Catawba, please see the work of Gene Crediford and Brooke Bauer. This project also does not analyze the personal experiences of non-Black and non-Indigenous people of color who have historically been involved with the college and its land. Finally, this analysis does not fully incorporate the long history of resistance and resilience that has existed and continues to exist in the area. For examples of such work, please see Shared Stories, the work of Brooke Bauer, and scholarship on Smithville. While this project is not intended to be comprehensive, it demonstrates an important intervention into existing scholarship on Davidson’s history by uncovering archival material, making connections between existing materials, and disseminating the resulting information more broadly.

In order to truly understand and reckon with the college’s history, we need accurate information regarding the school’s past and present – but having this information is by no means enough. This knowledge should not and cannot remain unused, but must inform deliberate community-led action. Such action has a long history among student groups on campus, and has been overwhelmingly pioneered by students of color. As I have tried to do here, I think that all of us at Davidson should strive to learn from their work and contribute to it where we can. In service of this, I believe we should allow the information here to change the way we think about Davidson and to inform our behavior in this community and everywhere we go. We should allow it to shape the decisions we make at the school that will influence not only us but also generations of students, staff, faculty, and townspeople to come. We should allow ourselves to be disoriented from the myths of a perfect and pristine Davidson before we are able to reorient ourselves towards an informed, responsible, and truthful future.

If you have questions, comments, or other feedback on this project, please stay tuned for the community event in September. If you are unable to attend or want to share your thoughts before then, please email me at samellin@davidson.edu. I will do my best to respond to all relevant messages that I receive.