Protecting Tobacco Road

UNC football

There are four major universities in North Carolina: N.C. State, UNC, Duke, and Wake Forest. These universities make up “Tobacco Road.” However, I think “Tobacco Road” extends beyond these four schools to include those universities that have constructed sports powerhouses on top of legacies of racial subjugation. In many ways, the “masters” or “planters” of the old plantation have been replaced by university administrators.

I began thinking about this in recent weeks in the aftermath of the UNC reading scandal. At the center of this story is a certain conversation about race. Most of the athletes implicated are Black. The Black Studies Department at UNC was a major part of the miseducation of UNC athletes. Additionally, surrounding UNC athletics, there is an oligarchy that will not give up power over the racialized body.

Let’s talk about how this system is protected.

I loved attending UNC basketball games as a graduate student between 2007 and 2012. However, I realized that social and racial hierarchy defined the Dean Smith Center (where the UNC basketball team plays). After standing in line for 2 hours to get a decent seat in the student section of the Center, and upon taking my seat in the student section, I observed the “wine and cheese” club. The members of this club walk out onto the floor minutes before tip off.  The rumor is that they enjoy wine and cheese before home basketball games. These “wine and cheese” members are special donors who have a special relationship with UNC athletics. They are overwhelmingly White (I think I saw a Black person one time). Most are over 40 of age. Yet, on this floor and on the football field, Black athletes formed the nucleus of the game. Black bodies were, overwhelmingly, the objects of sports spectacle.

UNC, like all of the universities on Tobacco Road, is part of a ‘crib to professional sports’ pipeline where Black athletes are often not expected to achieve core competencies in the University. I have to admit that N.C. State and Duke seem to not fit this mold so much. They push their students to take legitimate classes and some of them graduate in 3 or 3.5 years. Nevertheless, mostly Black players in most of these universities go from playing under the control of White university administrators to being the property – literally, the “property” – of White owners in the NBA or NFL. (Have you ever watched an NFL combine? They resemble slave markets.)

It is important for us to consider how this economy of athletics in American universities is aided in quite substantial ways by the racial segregation that still defines life in the U.S. South.  In past decades, UNC students have begged university administrators to remove the secrecy about the conditions of racial servitude at UNC. The University proudly displays two statues very close to one another in the main courtyard beside Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. One statue is a confederate soldier: “Silent Sam.” Another statue, titled the “Unsung Founders Memorial,” incorporates tiny figures of Black people holding a slab of granite. It supposedly pays homage to the history of the work that Black folks (slaves and non-slaves) did to make the university. But it is 10% the height of Silent Sam. It is relatively invisible.

This secrecy and invisibility doesn’t just define UNC. I interviewed for a faculty job at University of South Carolina a year or so ago. I was overcome by the fact that the campus is an old Southern plantation. The University President stays in a house in the middle of the campus that is akin to a plantation “big house.” A local hotel – where interviewees stay during their interviews – proudly displays a diagram of the plantation farms that surrounded the University of South Carolina over 150 years ago. When I asked faculty and Administrators at the University of South Carolina about this proud display of the plantation landscape, they dismissed me entirely.

In conversations with barbers in Winston Salem, North Carolina, I heard many stories about how police around Wake Forest University protected a line between poor Black communities and the overwhelmingly White student population of Wake Forest. Speaking about growing up around Wake Forest University, a local barber told me that “they would patrol that intersection at Cherry Street…if you went left…(onto what is now University Parkway)…you would be stopped…no questions asked.”


He and his fellow Black barbers grew up in a particular type of segregation. They could go practically anywhere they wanted to…but just not there.

The “patrolling” of these universities is a significant area of inquiry, especially in the aftermath of several murders in and around UNC. After the murder of UNC student Eve Carson in March 2008, the UNC community reacted with feelings of great fear. News specials showcased Eve Carson, a White female, as an angelic figure. UNC community, in particular, emphasized her role as student body president and lost gift to society. Even after police discovered that one of the men who murdered Carson (both men were Black) was responsible for murdering Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato, a citizen of India, it was Eve’s image that defined a culture of fear, vigilance, and healing in central North Carolina.

I returned to these quagmires after the murder of Faith Hedgepeth in Chapel Hill in 2012. Hedgepeth’s murder did not drum up the same sense of concern as Carson’s death did in earlier years. Hedgepeth – a UNC undergrad, a Native American, and a future doctor – still lies in limbo. Her murderer has not been found. Some people question if justice was sought for Faith Hedgepeth like it was sought for Eve Carson.

All of these issues point us toward a serious conversation about our different human values within American society. We often don’t want the things that pull at our heart strings and our senses of pride to be challenged. We don’t want to think that our universities are running modern day plantations. We don’t want to consider how the UNC community did not bemoan the death of Hedgepeth like it bemoaned the death of Carson.

In recent weeks, Mary Willingham, the tutor who broke the story of UNC’s unwillingness to ensure the educational standards of mostly Black athletes, has come out and stated that she will accept the backlash for speaking out about the conditions of oppression that defines UNC athletics. However, we must think beyond this particular story. We must attempt to define the powerful fist that came down on Willingham’s head. And we must ask several questions:

– How does this fist mirror the silence around the murders of particular people?

– How does this fist uphold the image of others?

– And, maybe more importantly, why and for whom is Tobacco Road protected?