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Open Letter from the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science:


Last week, Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recommended moving Silent Sam, a Confederate monument, to a proposed $5.3 million building in Odum Village, an aging collection of buildings constructed as married student housing in the early 1960s.

The “Odum” in Odum Village refers to Dr. Howard W. Odum, who founded our institute in 1924. Additionally, he founded the School of Social Work, the Department of Sociology and the top academic journal Social Forces. He also helped lay the groundwork for other departments and institutes on campus, including the Department of City and Regional Planning. Odum was one of the most renowned social scientists of his day and a celebrated professor during his time at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He was also a proud Southerner. Born in 1884 in rural Georgia, Odum grew up on a farm and, as an adult, devoted his life to the study of the South. From his extensive writings, we know that Odum was painfully aware of the South’s place in the United States – how it lagged behind other regions in income and education and how a legacy of racism and poverty hindered progress in those areas.

In many ways, Odum was ahead of his time, teaching lessons that are still relevant today:

  1. Racism plays an insidious role in the judicial system. His work during the 1920s and 1930s made this abundantly clear, and similar studies in recent years show that blatant racial disparities still exist in our courts today.
  2. Education is key to ensuring sustained progress in the South. In the words of his esteemed research associates, Guy and Guion Johnson, “Howard Odum believed strongly in the importance of education as a major instrument for leading the South out of its heritage of racial bigotry and economic backwardness.”
  3. Prejudice must not impede academics. Odum and his team faced continuous attacks from white supremacists and sympathizers for their research on race relations and poverty, and for collaborating with black intellectuals. After sponsoring a campus visit from Langston Hughes, the Institute faced years of vicious backlash. Former UNC President Frank Porter Graham shielded the Institute and defended their decision, stating: “The University must stand up for academic freedom.”
  4. Fighting racism and poverty requires perseverance. Progress against social problems as intractable as racism is not easy and does not happen overnight. Odum knew this, but instead of despairing he saw it as perhaps his greatest challenge – and so, too, is it ours.

In keeping with the beliefs of our founder, we believe the institute stands for much more than social science. It stands for honesty, integrity, research and evidence-based policy, the importance of facts in public debate, and the power that symbols have in our lives.

Therefore we, the staff of the Odum Institute, also believe that the presence of Silence Sam at a location named for our founder—or anywhere on this campus–is an affront to Dr. Howard W. Odum’s legacy of working for the rights of all citizens to participate freely and equally in society free of discrimination, free of prejudice and free of fear.

The Staff of the Howard W. Odum Institute for Research in Social Science

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