Host: Hey everybody and welcome to Well Said, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s podcast where we talk with students, faculty and staff about what’s going on on campus and around the world. And today we’re talking about University Day and the founding of the University of North Carolina with Jim Leloudis, the Peter T. Grauer associate dean for Honors Carolina, a professor of history and the co-chair of the Chancellor’s History Task Force.
Host: Let’s start this out by painting a picture of Chapel Hill in the late 1700s. What was the town of Chapel Hill like?
Leloudis: Well the nearest town would have been Hillsborough. European landowners who acquired this land in the early 18th century, and in turn gave parcels to build the new university, they had acquired it through grants from the Granville district—a large slice of North Carolina, basically the top half, east and way west of where the borders now are, that had belonged to one of the original lord’s proprietors—and so the local landowners here received that land — well they purchased it. It’s called a grant, but they actually purchased it.
Host: So why was this small town the one that was selected to be the home of this university? I mean, it could’ve been put anywhere in the state. What made this town special?
Leloudis: This area was pretty close to being the geographic center of the state. It was on the western periphery, but in a part of the state that was being rapidly settled as the frontier was pushed further and further to the west and as the indigenous groups who were living here were pushed out of the territory. Being along those two trading paths was also really important. These are paths that native populations had traveled for many, many years — decades, perhaps even centuries before the first European colonists were here — and colonists used those roads instead. So it was, in a sense, a kind of center — close enough to Hillsborough, but far enough away and this is one consideration not to compromise the morals of the students by having them too close to an urban setting.
Host: We proudly consider ourselves the first public university in the country, so before Carolina nothing like this had existed yet. Where did this idea to have a public university come from in the first place?
Leloudis: Yeah, well, we’re the first public university. Of course, Georgia has an argument, right? That they were chartered earlier, but we graduated students long before the University of Georgia, so it seems to me that’s a good reason to hang on to that claim to being first. It’s interesting if you look at the early public universities, they tend mostly to be in the South, not in the northeast, because these had been proprietary crown colonies and the monarchy had been hesitant to establish colleges or universities in those territories for fear of losing political control. So in the aftermath of the American Revolution, there weren’t already institutions here. Those institutions had to be created to sustain this rather radical experiment in democratic government.
Host: What did the founders envision when they established this place? What did they want the University of North Carolina to be?
Leloudis: Well, what they wanted it to be, first and foremost, was a training ground for young men who would go out into public life, who would make their careers in the legislature, on the bench, as a local justice of peace. It was about educating an elite people who would lead and guide this new experiment.
Host: Every year on October 12 we celebrate the anniversary of when the cornerstone for Old East was put in place, and it sort of signified the birth of the University. It’s a big celebration today, but what about 224 years ago? Was this a big deal back then or was it just Day One of a construction project?
Leloudis: No, it was a big celebration. I mean this was, this institution was an important part of creating a new kind of political order. No landed aristocracy, no monarch, but a republic, a representative democracy. Now we can come back to that and talk about the ways in which those words are all hedged in in the late 18th century and even through a good bit of the 19th century. But yes, it was a very important moment. This university at its founding was very much informed by the ideas of the European enlightenment and that belief in the capacity of human reason — our capacity to pose questions about the world, to discover answers to those questions and then take knowledge to transform and better the world. So, the original orientation of the university was actually to the east, it was not on the North-South axis that we’re familiar with, too. The original seal the University was the sun head of Apollo, which the System now claims, but it was ours originally. All of that looking to the east to ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia to sort of the beginnings of human civilization, science and rational thought.
Host: What was the University’s role in society in the late 1700s when students were just starting to arrive here for classes?
Leloudis: Again, a really good question. We talk today about the “university of the people,” and I think there’s no doubt that that is a commitment that the modern university has. It’s something that emerged, people began talking about it that way. Actually as early as reconstruction—I come back to that again in a moment—but to talk about this as the university of the people from the time of its founding is profoundly ahistorical. It was very much an elite institution. It was about educating the sons of a slave holding elite — young men who were going to wield power in the state legislature, as a lawyer, as a judge in their local communities. And there was no out of state cap, and so if you look at the student body here on the eve of the Civil War, this has become by then very much a regional institution and is educating the sons of a slave holding elite from across the South. I have a group of students working this semester, actually, in a seminar on slavery and the university. And one of the things they’ve been doing is taking the Class of 1850 and the Class of 1860 and getting very basic information on all those students — where they’re from, the size of their family’s real estate holdings, the size of their slave holdings. I think all the students said they knew the institution was created and was part of a slave owner world, I think that they were nevertheless shocked at how really quite large many of the plantations these students are coming off of. So, I believe that William Holden, who was governor during reconstruction in North Carolina, which again is this really fascinating moment, after the Civil War, after emancipation, people struggling to find ways to create an inclusive democracy from the ashes of a slaveholder’s regime. Well, that didn’t work out too well in the long run, but they saw this university as being a critical part of that. I believe it’s William Holden who actually first coins that phrase “University of the people,” and what he’s talking about is opening the university after the Civil War quite broadly to a larger subset of the people of North Carolina. Their reconstruction experiment ended before we saw how far it would go. There was no talk of creating a racially desegregated university, though there was talk of creating a parallel black institution in Raleigh. There was some talk of admitting women, but that whole reconstruction experiment was defeated in virulent white supremacy campaigns before we could really see where it might lead.
Host: When looking back on the history of the state of North Carolina, what has the University’s role been throughout the years?
Leloudis: I think you could argue that this institution — particularly from the late 19th century forward — has been a great animating force in the history of North Carolina. It’s worth stepping back and just thinking about, in some ways, kind of how odd it is that an institution of this caliber developed in what was historically a very, very poor state. So, this university has, you know, through much of its history—certainly from the end of this time after the Civil War forward — it has been a driver of the economy — certainly true today. The new knowledge that’s produced here is applied to the world, it makes lives better for people across North Carolina, across the United States, and in today around the globe as well. This institution, a university of its caliber, in, as I said, what is historically been a very, very poor state, has been a doorway to opportunity. You know, I mean, I think about the time when I was here in the 70s, and it’s certainly true today if we think of the Carolina Covenant, I mean what a remarkable commitment to that idea. This institution played a vital role in creating new opportunity for generation after generation after generation of North Carolinians — opportunity that would not have been available otherwise. Had this university not been here, individual lives would have been profoundly different, and without a doubt the life of the state — and even the life of the south — would have been profoundly different, for the worse.
Host: Like I mentioned before we’re going to be celebrating University Day on October 12. As a historian why do you think it’s so important that we celebrate this day every year?
Leloudis: I think it is really important for us to take this day once a year to reflect on who we are, who we were, how we came to be what we are today, and what we aspire to tomorrow. You know, I said earlier on, it really would have set a mistake to talk about the university of the people before the Civil War, but nevertheless, this university is founded on that radical enlightenment idea of the power of human reason to change and transform the world for the better. And that was a lot of work to do, right? This was a slave holding society, women didn’t have the same citizenship rights as men, the vast majority of black North Carolinians were held in chattel slavery. What’s interesting, I think long term about this history, and in some ways, it parallels the history of the nation, is that is born of a set of ideas that are not particularly well expressed in the institutions of the time, but have sort of remained aspirational. And this past weekend, we were all celebrating the launch of the public phase of the new campaign — you know the tagline, “For All Kind.” What really made me feel so good about this place this weekend is that at a time when many public universities are sort of retreating from that word and becoming more and more private, this institution has decided to pick up that commitment, that notion of being the people’s university, of being accessible to all and to run with it — boldly and fearlessly.