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225 years of Tar Heels: Hortense McClinton

In 1966, Hortense McClinton reshaped Carolina by becoming the first African-American faculty member to be hired by the University.

Hortense McClinton
Hortense McClinton talks about her life and her teaching during an interview at her home in Durham. In background is a portrait of her and her husband John W. McClinton.

225 Years.Editor’s note: In honor of the University’s 225th anniversary, we will be sharing profiles throughout the academic year of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.

Hortense McClinton was in eighth grade when she realized what she wanted to do when she grew up. A woman who worked for the Children’s Bureau in Washington came to a school assembly to talk about social work.

McClinton had never heard of such a thing, but she left school that day thinking, “That’s it. That’s what I want to be.”

And, that’s what she became. In 1966, McClinton, who had been working as a social worker in Durham, began teaching in the UNC School of Social Work. When she started, she became the first African-American faculty member to be hired at Carolina.

McClinton was born in 1918 and grew up in Boley, Oklahoma. She enrolled at Howard University in Washington in 1936. After she graduated, she attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree in social work.

McClinton moved to Durham after she met her husband, John McClinton, and was hired by the Durham County Department of Social Services at the Veterans Administration hospital, becoming the first African-American social worker to be employed there.

The dean from the UNC School of Social Work first offered McClinton a job in 1964, but she rejected the offer because the job was funded by term-limited grant money. She wanted something more secure, but two years later, McClinton accepted the offer.

In 1972, she began teaching a course on institutional racism.

“I finally decided, well, if you’ve been taught a certain thing all your life, you have to learn to know something different,” said McClinton, according to the For the Record blog managed by University Archives.

While at Carolina for 20 years, McClinton served on several committees including the Committee on the Status of Women, Carolina Association of Disabled Students and the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Minorities and the Disadvantaged. McClinton was also recognized as a “Social Work Pioneer” by the National Association of Social Workers.

Her legacy at Carolina continues through both the Hortense McClinton Outstanding Faculty Staff Award presented by the General Alumni Association and the Hortense McClinton Senior Service Award presented by the Kappa Omicron Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. In 2016, then-Chancellor Carol L. Folt announced a new program to name scholarships after notable “firsts” in Carolina’s history. McClinton was among those firsts.