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History professor Genna Rae McNeil will retire soon, leaving a legacy of scholarship, influential teaching, respectful discourse, advocacy for equality and, above all, students who go on to do great things.

Genna Rae McNeil greets attendees at the 2017 African American History Month Lecture. Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill.
Genna Rae McNeil greets attendees at the 2017 African American History Month Lecture. (photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Oh, did Genna Rae McNeil push Karol Mason’s buttons. 

In the best way possible, though. 

Mason, a 21-year-old Black senior at Carolina in spring 1979, enrolled in McNeil’s “Race, Racism and American Law” history course because she had never taken a class taught by a Black professor. 

McNeil, not much older than Mason, graded on her curve, based on what she expected from you. 

“She made me work for my A. I knew I was doing better work than other people to whom she was giving an A, and I resented it,” Mason said. “She was my first experience with somebody expecting more of me and pushing me to go beyond what I thought was my best.” 

McNeil also was preparing Mason to exceed everyone’s expectations throughout her life. And Mason did. She eventually served as U.S. assistant attorney general, was a member of the University’s Board of Trustees 2001-2009 and is president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

Professor McNeil will retire July 1 after 36 years in the UNC College of Arts & Sciences’ history department. Her teaching, scholarship, writing and advocacy for equality for all influenced two generations of students as well as historians worldwide. 

Earliest years 

McNeil arrived at Carolina in 1974 as a promising scholar with an others-first thinking shaped by her parents and her dissertation adviser, the influential historian John Hope Franklin. Her parents — Jesse Jai McNeil Sr. and Pearl Lee Walker McNeil — impressed on her a way of living based on “the understanding of our equality as human beings created in the image of the God of love, justice, mercy,” she said. 

In the 1970s, she said, some academic departments began to see the value of offering classes about the history of people of color in the United States, and a movement to support and sustain what had been an African and Afro-American studies curriculum as an academic department was underway. 

McNeil advocated for “progressive changes like having a curriculum and a faculty that look more like the United States in its diversity and in its proportions,” she said. “I was always in that group of persons who wanted to be at the cutting edge of emphasizing the richness of knowledge that could be overlooked if we did not bring cultural, racial, ethnic diversity into our faculty and into our curriculum.”

In Chapel Hill, a small community of Black and white history colleagues and others on Carolina’s faculty befriended her. 

Bernadette Gray-Little, who McNeil calls her “very first friend” at Carolina, went on to become a psychology professor and executive vice chancellor and provost at Carolina, then president of the University of Kansas. She was a “lifeline, adviser and guide in the earliest years,” McNeil said. 

Charles Daye, the first Black tenure-track faculty member at the UNC School of Law, and history colleagues Jacqueline Dowd Hall, Joel Williamson, Donald Matthews, along with Black faculty at Duke and North Carolina Central University, brought McNeil into their circle. 

Leaving and returning 

In 1976, McNeil took a two-year leave of absence from Carolina to join Howard University as a visiting professor. She left Carolina in 1979 to pursue historical research.  

Over the ensuing years, McNeil would think on her parents’ words about public institutions and how they were legally required to be inclusive, to provide opportunities and to avoid creating hostile environments for people of color, she said. 

“I wish there were an amendment to the United States Constitution stating that a quality education is a right, not just a privilege, because our society cannot function without having a citizenry that has had the opportunity to explore ideas, learn new things and to engage in conversation and discourse at all levels,” McNeil said. 

In 1990, McNeil felt called to return to Carolina, the country’s oldest public university, and resume what she had started in 1974.  

Scholarly scope and impact 

McNeil has published extensively in journals on race, racism and social transformation. Her first book, “Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights, chronicles the life of the former dean of the Howard University Law School, a man who trained Thurgood Marshall and other Black legal giants. She consulted on television documentaries, including PBS’s “Eyes on the Prize.” Scholars frequently cite McNeil’s 1976 interview with civil rights and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray, conducted through Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program. 

She also took the lead in creating Carolina’s Annual African American History Month Lecture. McNeil is quick to acknowledge help from department faculty and staff in establishing the lecture, especially accountant Joyce Loftin, whom McNeil credits with carefully managing funds from multiple campus sources. The lecture brings the nation’s finest historians to Carolina to speak about race. 

But her time as teacher, mentor and friend may serve as McNeil’s most meaningful legacy. Her former “student scholars” and “history makers,” as she calls them, bear witness to her approach to life. 

“I always seek through prayer what I believe God wants me to do with the gifts, developed talents, intellect, abilities, training and experiences I have been blessed to have. My sense of purpose may be summed up in this quotation from the Old Testament book of Micah: ‘I am required by God to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly as led by God,’” McNeil said. 

Even as a young faculty member, she knew that in addition to the teaching, research and committee work required of a tenure-track professor, she would be paying particular attention to Black students. “If you’re African American, no matter what, this extra service is always there,” she said. “But you did it with not just a sense of duty, but with a sense of ‘I know that if I persist, these students will pay it forward.’” 

“She cares about her students and not just while they’re her students,” Mason said of McNeil. “She’s the only professor I’ve ever had who checked back on me later in life to see how I was doing. That says something about how much she cares about what she does and her relationships with her students, her work and her pride in them.” 

McNeil’s former students include Mason; the late Houston B. Robeson, a doctoral student whom McNeil invited to co-author a bicentennial history of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church; former University of Washington law school dean W.H. “Joe” Knight; and federal judge Algenon “Monte” Marbley, who ordered police in Columbus, Ohio, to stop using pepper spray, tear gas, batons and rubber bullets against nonviolent protesters. 

And that’s just the short list. 

The last class, same as the first class 

William Ferris, Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History, praised McNeil’s lifelong commitment to racial and social justice. “At Carolina, Genna Rae has worked tirelessly to address issues of race, class and gender. It is a special blessing to know her and to see how she has built a brighter future for both UNC and our nation,” he said. 

The brighter future that Ferris mentions will come from McNeil’s students, including those in the last class of her career: Race, Racism and American Law. One of her students, senior political science major and immigration activist Ricsy Sanchez, came to the United States from Honduras at age 11 by following a “coyote” paid to smuggle her across the U.S.-Mexican border. 

“She made me realize that it’s a challenge when I compare my own personal experiences with the actual law of the United States,” Sanchez said. “I know immigration, but with her, we started in the 1500s and we saw Latinx history starting well before the U.S. Constitution was written. She challenged us to think about where we came from and where we are now.” 

And, like hundreds of McNeil’s students before her, Sanchez leaves Carolina influenced by the way McNeil treats others. 

“Compassion and empathy, that’s what I take away,” Sanchez said. “From the first day of class, Professor McNeil said, ‘Before you are my student, you are first a person, and every class I will ask how you’re doing,’ and she expected an honest answer. So, in the future when I’m working in law or in the political arena, I want to make sure people are doing OK, then go from there.” 

By Scott Jared, The Well


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