When William Richardson Davie laid the cornerstone at Old East on Oct. 12, 1793, it marked the beginning of what alumnus Charles Kuralt would famously call “the University of the people.”
That’s why, since 1877, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has recognized October 12 as University Day, a time to anticipate Carolina’s future while celebrating its history — a rich history that includes a long commitment to accessibility and affordability.
In 1868, revisions to the State Constitution of North Carolina emphasized that the state government should do its best to provide the benefits of education to its youth “free of expense of tuition.” That language stayed in place for more than a century until, in 1971, the revisions were extended to include providing benefits “free of expense” to all public institutions of higher education in the state and all people of all ages.
Even before then — and well before the current Carolina Covenant (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year), Carolina Firsts and C-STEP — the University showed plenty of examples of its dedication to provide high-quality education to the people of this state and to those from outside of it.
UNC-Chapel Hill celebrated its 221st birthday Sunday, giving us another opportunity to reflect on the stories of those whose tireless efforts have paved the way for generations of Tar Heels to emerge as scholars, leaders and dedicated public servants.
Di Phi: early financial aid
The Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, also known as the Di and the Phi, were formed from a single debating society in 1795, when the University first opened to students. The societies’ main activities were composition and debate, but members also made impactful contributions to the University, including donating books to build the UNC Libraries and developing organizations like the General Alumni Association.
According to The Carolina Story, the Di and the Phi may have been some of the first organizations to promote accessibility by providing financial aid to some members.
The Di and the Phi merged into a single organization, the Dialectic and Philanthropic Joint Senate, in 1959. Di Phi remains active on campus today as the oldest student organization at UNC-Chapel Hill and manages the Foundation, a legal arm of the societies that uses its financial resources to preserve and restore archival materials.
“The Ladies of the Hill”
In its early days, UNC-Chapel Hill, like many other universities in southern states, was open only to male students. Educated women were in demand to teach in school systems, but there were only two options available for women in higher education: attend junior college or go to finishing school.
In 1898, Sallie Walker Stockard changed that. After graduating from Guilford College, she became the first woman to receive a degree from Carolina (although she wasn’t allowed to attend commencement ceremonies). She later earned a master’s degree from the University in 1900.
Stockard set the standard for other women, called the “Ladies of the Hill” at that time, to move UNC-Chapel Hill toward becoming a co-ed university. In 1914, Cora Zeta Corpening became the first woman to attend medical school at Carolina, and Margaret Berry was the first female student to graduate with a law degree.
A century later, the University has become a vibrant community for diverse women; during last October’s University Day, Carol L. Folt was installed as its first female chancellor.
Pioneer for American Indians
A pioneer for American Indians in North Carolina, Henry Owl — who earned a master’s degree in history from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1929 — was the first American Indian to be admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill.
After graduating, Owl was also an advocate for voting rights for the Cherokee, who could not vote in North Carolina until after World War II. His accomplishments were recognized in 2011, when the American Indian and Indigenous Studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill established a fund in his honor.
The Henry Owl Fund, which promotes the study of Cherokee language and culture, also included a fellowship that allowed a graduate student the opportunity to study in a Cherokee language intensive.
Others at UNC-Chapel Hill who came after Owl continued to work hard to create an American Indian community at the University. Today, there are a number of resources and organizations on campus, including the American Indian Center and the Carolina Indian Circle.
Red, white and Carolina blue
In the wake of World War II, the U.S. Congress passed the 1944 G.I. Bill, providing financial support that gave many military veterans the opportunity to attend college. Once the war ended, UNC-Chapel Hill saw enrollment double between 1945 and 1946 before reaching 7,600 students in 1947.
Many veterans were older and married, some with children. They were often also first-generation college students.
To accommodate their needs and the increased enrollment, the University converted buildings into dormitories and built temporary homes in the woods of South Campus for married veterans and their families. The woods community, referred to as “Victory Village,” stood on University grounds for more than 20 years.
Today, Carolina strives to make higher education accessible to active duty military and veterans. Eligible active duty military and reserve officers receive reduced tuition rates. The Veterans Resource Team at the Office of the Dean of Students and the Carolina Veterans Organization provide support for UNC-Chapel Hill’s growing number of veteran students. And with opportunities like a proposed physician assistant program aimed at veterans and the online MBA@UNC, the University continues its efforts to serve those who have served this country.
The country’s first merit scholarship
Considering Carolina is the first public university in the United States, perhaps it’s fitting that the Morehead-Cain Scholarship was the country’s first merit scholarship program. Established in 1951 as the John Motley Morehead Awards, the prestigious four-year scholarship supports undergraduates by providing full tuition and fees, housing, meals, a laptop and a four-year Summer Enrichment Program, among other opportunities.
In 2007, a $100 million gift from the Gordon and Mary Cain Foundation allowed the Morehead Scholarship to expand and offer full scholarships to more students. This year, the Morehead-Cain Scholars Class of 2018 includes 57 students, 31 from North Carolina and 26 from outside of the state, who will have the opportunity to earn a degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, all expenses covered.
During the summer of 1951, Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, Kenneth Lee and Floyd B. McKissick Sr. made history as the first black students to enroll at UNC-Chapel Hill. The four men, who attended the School of Law, were allowed in classes but were still separated from white students in housing and recreational facilities. That same year, Oscar Diggs, who eventually became the first black graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine in 1955, also began classes.
By 1955, UNC-Chapel Hill had enrolled its first black undergraduate students, Leroy Frasier, John Lewis Brandon and Ralph Frasier. But enrollment of black students remained low at the University throughout the early 1960s.
As protests and sit-ins began against segregated public facilities in the town of Chapel Hill, students and local residents picketed the businesses that wouldn’t allow admission to black customers. Pressure mounted, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 eventually led to integration in public facilities.
After the changes sparked by the Civil Rights movement, Carolina soon hired its first black faculty member, Hortense McClinton of the School of Social Work. Men’s basketball guard Charles Scott became the first black scholarship athlete in 1966. In 1967, students Preston Dobbins and Reggie Hawkins, founded the Black Student Movement, an organization that is still active on campus today.
In the 1970s, more black students and faculty began to take leadership roles. Blyden Jackson and his wife Roberta were the first tenured black faculty members, joining the University in 1969 and 1974, respectively. Richard Epps was the first black student body president in 1972, and Harold Cushenberry Jr., and Karen Stevenson were the first black male and female students to be awarded Morehead Scholarships, him in 1968 and her in 1975.
Programs and initiatives throughout the 1970s continued to increase the enrollment of black students at UNC-Chapel Hill. Many of those efforts, such as support for minority students through the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and recruitment through unique programs like Project Uplift and North Carolina Renaissance, have continued to help create an increasingly diverse community at the University.
Today, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is recognized as one of the top five public universities in the country and the most economically diverse of all top public universities, demonstrating dedication to making higher education accessible to all.
With programs like the Carolina Covenant, which promises that low-income students will have the opportunity to graduate debt free, Carolina Firsts, a support organization for the University’s first-generation college students or C-STEP, a program that allows talented community college students to transfer to and graduate from UNC, Carolina continues to find innovative ways to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have the opportunity to attend and succeed at the University.
Thanks to the stories and the work of these individuals and organizations, along with many others, UNC-Chapel Hill has, as UNC alumnus Charles Kuralt said at University Day in 1993, continued to be, “as it was meant to be, the University of the people.”
Special thanks to The Carolina Story, Jennifer Coggins of University Archives, professor emeritus John Sanders’ “The Constitution of North Carolina and Financing the University of North Carolina” and William Powell’s book, The First State University, for providing important historical information and insight.