Southern Roots

As a Southern university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has roots that extend to the movement toward public education prior to the Revolutionary War and the antebellum era. During this time, slaves played important roles in constructing the University’s first buildings. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, skilled craftsmen and other black workers helped transform Carolina into a national treasure known for its beauty and the value of its instruction.

Not all black workers on campus were slaves prior to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In 1847 the University hired Thomas Day, a respected free black artisan, to create woodwork for the libraries of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies. He also built furniture for the societies in 1861. From his workshop in Milton, NC, Day operated the state’s largest furniture business, fashioning fine furniture and trim for wealthy white customers. His staff included free employees and slaves owned by Day. As a free black man in a slave-based society, Day faced stringent restrictions on his activities. Other free blacks included Leroy Anderson and James Smith, who helped finish work on Gerrard Hall and did repairs to other buildings.

The University lost many of its sons in the Civil War and, when post-war enrollment decreased, was forced to close between 1870 and 1875.

The North Carolina division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned the Confederate Monument in 1913 in honor of the UNC alumni who fought and died as Confederate soldiers in the Civil War. The monument stands in McCorkle Place. The relief beneath the statue of the soldier depicts a woman (representing the state of North Carolina) exhorting a student to drop his books and join the cause. The monument has been at the center of controversy. Many view it as a glorification of the Confederacy and thus a tacit defense of slavery, and believe it should be removed. Others feel that such a removal would do more harm than good by denying the reality of this period of UNC’s (and the nation’s) history.

The “Unsung Founders, Bond and Free” memorial standing nearby, was created in part to counter the negative connotations of the Confederate Monument by honoring the African American slaves and servants from the same historical period. On November 5, 2005, the University dedicated this memorial. Given by the Class of 2002 and created by artist Do-Ho Suh, the piece features bronze figures upholding a stone tablet and five stone seats. It can also be used as a table. Its inscription reads “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.”

Carolina’s campus contains reminders of people who, while they contributed to the University’s growth, did not believe in the equitable treatment of all, as the University does today.

For example, University presidents Joseph Caldwell and David Swain owned slaves. Some faculty from outside the South, such as Englishman James Phillips and Connecticut native Elisha Mitchell, purchased slaves when they came to Chapel Hill.

The University’s antebellum trustees were typically large slaveholders. Of the original 40 trustees appointed in 1789, at least 30 owned slaves. Among them, Benjamin Smith of Brunswick County owned the most with 221. In 1851, the University named a library for Smith that is now known as Playmakers Theatre. Other trustees with substantial numbers of slaves included Stephen Cabarrus, Samuel Johnston, Willie Jones and Richard Dobbs Spaight. In addition to being trustees, Spaight signed the U.S. Constitution for North Carolina, and Johnston was the state’s first U.S. senator. Johnston, Smith and Spaight also served as governors of North Carolina.

Another trustee, William Lawrence Saunders, was known as the chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina and Chapel Hill in 1869–1870. Saunders graduated from UNC in 1854 and then practiced law in Salisbury, NC. During the Civil War, he served as a colonel and was wounded in two battles. He was a University trustee from 1874 until 1891. When Democrats regained power in North Carolina, Saunders became Secretary of State and arranged for the publication of North Carolina’s colonial records in a series on which historians still rely. In 1922, the University named its new history department building for Saunders to recognize his work as a compiler of historical documents. Several academic departments have been housed in Saunders Hall, most recently the departments of Religious Studies and Geography.

This article features information from The Carolina Story. For more information, see the Slavery and the Making of the University.