Unsung Founders Memorial

How can a single memorial, set in the main quad of a public university campus, possibly evoke such an array of responses? This controversial monument has remained notorious throughout its nearly five years of existence.

The Unsung Founders Memorial, designed and created by Korean artist Do-Ho Suh,  was the 2002 Senior Class Gift to the University and sits in the upper quad at UNC-Chapel Hill. The memorial is seen by nearly all who pass through UNC’s campus.

The Unsung Founders Memorial is a circular black granite slab table with an inscription reading, “The Class of 2002 honors the University’s unsung founders, the people of color, bond and free, who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.” Holding up the slab are 300 figurines representing these people of color, bond and free, whose physical labor constructed the very buildings surrounding the Memorial.

Monuments of any kind use a unique kind of tangible rhetoric to inspire a variety of emotional responses and thought in its viewers. The intended message of the Unsung Founders memorial, one that seeks to celebrate and honor those who labored to create the university, as well as inspire thoughtful acknowledgment and reflection, is utterly lost today. Rather, the monument is often a source of awkwardness and discomfort. One student reflects,  “Slavery is such an embarrassing and tragic part of American history. We have a memorial that actually depicts the slave labor. It is an uncomfortable subject.”  Thus, rather than memorializing the people who built the university, the monument creates confusion and embarrassment. Hence, unfortunately the desired emotional response by those who see the memorial fades, and a new set of sentiments is evoked.

Dougher, Jamie. “Senior Class Gives Nod to Unsung Founders.” The Daily Tar Heel. 12 October, 2001
Knighton, Heather. “Class of 2002 Raises $54K for Unsung Founders Memorial.” The Daily Tar Heel. 5 November, 2002.

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