McGhee featured for leadership in UNC's Gazette
February 28, 2018
This article was posted online Feb. 28 in the University Gazette.
O.J. McGhee has spent a lifetime working behind the camera, not in front of it.
“Most people don’t believe that I would rather be behind the scenes,” said McGhee, who since 2001 has worked as manager of Instructional Media Services in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
He stepped out of that comfort zone in 2015 when he stepped forward to serve as chair of the Carolina Black Caucus.
The organization was formed in 1974 as the Black Faculty-Staff Caucus to promote affirmative action, recruitment and hiring of African-Americans, racial justice and awareness, and equal opportunities for all minority members of the University community.
During his brief tenure, McGhee said, the national conversation on race has intensified on college campuses throughout the country, including Carolina. And that conversation grew more urgent after an August 2017 rally of white nationalists led to a day of rage, hate, violence and death at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
In Chapel Hill, the discussion focused on the renewed efforts of students and community activists to remove the Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” from McCorkle Place, Carolina’s historic heart.
In November, when Chancellor Carol L. Folt and the University’s Board of Trustees gave staff, students and faculty members a chance to speak about the issue, McGhee felt the obligation to stand up and be heard.
The caucus, McGhee told trustees, “was founded to celebrate our community and advocate for a more inclusive campus, which is counter to the very existence of Silent Sam.”
McGhee said the caucus would continue to work with the chancellor and University partners to petition for the statue’s removal and urge a repeal of the state law that keeps the divisive symbol on campus grounds.
“Let me be clear, there’s nothing silent about Silent Sam. The statue screams racism and white supremacy,” McGhee said.
Getting into the game
McGhee’s understanding of race in America came from growing up in southeastern Washington, D.C., a part of the city that was nearly all black and that residents knew as “SE.” He was born in 1969, the year after another O.J.—Orenthal James Simpson—won the Heisman Trophy.
But he was not named after Simpson. His father named him Onegaa Joyner McGhee because he was his first-born child. In Swahili, his first name is pronounced mwan-ga; it means to “illuminate” or “shine a light.” Ironically, McGhee said, the reason he ended up being called “O.J.” was because he played football—and the game announcers started calling him O.J. because they probably couldn’t pronounce his first name.
He played quarterback on a team that was so good he was not good enough to be the starter. Still, McGhee was good enough to be selected for the all-star game. “In fact, it was the only high school game I ever started.”
The desire to play college football led him to William Penn College, a nearly all-white school in Oskaloosa, Iowa. It did not take long for him to realize the school was not a good fit for him.
“It was a huge culture shock,” McGhee said. “Growing up in D.C., we didn’t have many white kids at my school. In Iowa, I was around white students who had never seen black people before.”
He also realized that his love of football had allowed him to lose focus on the one thing that mattered most of all — getting a good education.
His mother — a social worker who went back to college after he was born to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the historically black college Howard University — had told him over and over again that getting a good education was the only game that mattered. Doing well in school, she said, would be his ticket to a better life.
After one year, he transferred to Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university in Atlanta, where he played football and worked at the school’s cable TV station before earning a bachelor’s degree in mass media arts in 1992. After graduating, he returned to Washington to work at the Black College Satellite Network. There, McGhee met his wife, Kimberly, and began his career in distance education. He later won a Corporation for Public Broadcasting fellowship that enabled him to earn a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Ohio University in 1996.
His career path included stops at Black Entertainment Television, a Baltimore television station, Morgan State University and Florida A&M before his final stop at UNC-Chapel Hill in fall 2001.
The challenge for Carolina
McGhee has lived long enough to experience something he never dared to dream he would ever see — the election of a black president. He said he will never forget watching the election returns in November 2008 with his 4-year-old daughter, Kyla, sitting on his knee.
McGhee said that many people made the mistake of believing that the election of Barack Obama signified that the country’s racial problems were over. “But it also triggered a backlash that is still being felt today,” he said.
The march of history always has had its two steps forward and one step back. No matter what happens to the Confederate Monument, McGhee will be focused on helping the University do more to live up to its credo as the “University of the people.” The way to do that, he said, is to be intentional and make it more representative of all people, not only by the students it admits, but also by the faculty and staff it hires.
“Even those who are well-intentioned, even those who believe in an inclusive and diverse campus, can fall short when it comes to hiring minorities,” McGhee said. “We are certainly doing better than most of our peer institutions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do even better when it comes to the recruiting and retaining of African-Americans. I’d like to see Carolina lead the nation in those areas and become a model for the rest of the country.”
An expanded emphasis to build a pipeline of underrepresented tenured faculty, an increase in implicit bias training and a centralized exit interview process are a few tools he would like to see implemented to reach that goal.
“Somehow, we have to develop more policies and procedures to keep those values of inclusiveness and diversity alive and to make them more real in people’s lives,” McGhee said.