UNC history professor William Sturkey aims to empower students to talk about race

Readings from William Sturkey’s America in the Sixties course include much of what one would expect from any other history course – speeches by John F. Kennedy, articles on the Vietnam War and lectures on the civil rights movement.

But the associate history professor also includes compulsory listening in his program: some of the best songs of the 1960s, from Bob Dylan and The Temptations to Aretha Franklin and his current favorite, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding.

“Music is also a primary source,” Sturkey said. “As we analyze, say, how young people might think about relationships between men and women, we listen to some of the songs about dating, some of the big pop hits. We have a full day on Motown and the Beatles.

Sturkey said the class’s goal was to connect all the different movements of the ’60s — from music to foreign policy to civil rights — to get a broader understanding of the decade.

His research focuses on the history of race in the South, writing about the experiences of non-white people who have fundamentally shaped American history but have been largely excluded from the narrative around it, he said.

His most recent book, “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White,” centers on a black community in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era leading up to the civil rights movement.

“People like my family members haven’t been included in the story of who Americans are and what America is,” Sturkey said. “And a big part of my job is to center their lives around that story.”

Sturkey said he was initially drawn to studying history and racial history because of his personal experiences with racism growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania. In college, he took history classes that gave him a better understanding of the nature of race in the United States.

And now that he’s the one teaching, he wants to do the same for his students.

“I love empowering students to talk about race in America,” Sturkey said. “Even though I cared and appreciated the subject of race in the 1960s, when all these dramatic changes happened, the most important thing, I think, is to give young people a space to dialogue on important subjects in our society.”

Senior Riley Green has been enrolled in Sturkey’s American History class since 1865, when she was a freshman. Green first took the class for general education credit, but she said it ended up being one of her favorite classes she took at UNC because of the amount of information that Sturkey gathered in his engaging lectures.

“He was super knowledgeable, always ready to answer questions and explain things thoroughly,” Green said. “And you can really tell he was passionate about what he was teaching.”

In fall 2019, Sturkey taught a one-credit course called “Race & Memory at UNC”, which explored the history of race on campus, from the founding of the University to more contemporary issues.

He said the course was offered at a time when students were craving information about UNC’s racial history that was not provided by the University to educate them.

Erik Gellman, an associate professor in the history department, said the class did a lot to expose the white supremacist structures the university was built on and UNC’s failure to address its past.

“I think he’s done this university a great service to bring these things to light,” Gellman said. “And for the University to have been forced, in many ways, to consider some of those legacies, including, of course, Silent Sam and that statue being permanently removed, the renaming of buildings on campus and the story behind the names of these buildings.

On Feb. 18, Sturkey will speak at an event also titled “Race and Memory at UNC,” alongside civil rights activist and historian Danita Mason-Hogans.

He said the discussion, which will explore basic elements of UNC’s racial history, was originally designed to help new faculty understand the university’s past.

“It won’t just be some kind of story hour,” Sturkey said. “Critical to this is also why we struggle so much with this story in our present time and what keeps UNC-Chapel Hill from being a leading institution when it comes to telling its own story.”


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