Carolina Firsts: Karen L. Parker

At the University Day celebration on October 11, 2016, Chancellor Carol Folt announced a new program to name scholarships after notable “firsts” in UNC history. In recognition of the individuals recognized as pioneers at UNC, the University Archives is publishing blog posts with more information about each of the twenty-one “firsts.” This post is part of that series.

Karen L. Parker Diary, Letter, and Clippings #5275, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Karen L. Parker Diary, Letter, and Clippings #5275, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Karen L. Parker made history at UNC in 1965, when she became the first African American woman to receive an undergraduate degree from the University.

Parker began her studies at UNC in 1963 following two years of study at the North Carolina Women’s College in Greensboro (now UNC-Greensboro). During her time at UNC, she took an active role in the local and national civil rights movements, participating in sit-ins and marches. The diary she kept as a student — which documents her experience on campus and in the community, her hopes and goals for the future, and the trials she encountered along the way — has been digitized and can be found in the Southern Historical Collection.  

At UNC, Parker majored in Journalism. For her senior year, she was named the editor of The Journalista news publication put out by the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Parker was also chosen to participate in UNC’s exchange program with the University of Toronto.

After graduating, Parker went on to have a successful career in journalism, working at Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the Los Angeles Times; and other publications before returning to North Carolina to work at the Winston-Salem Journal. She retired in 2010, and was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in 2012.

Parker has been active with UNC, serving on the Friends of the Library Board and the Board of the General Alumni Association. In 2015, during the campaign to rename the former Saunders Hall (now Carolina Hall), a UNC student wrote to the Daily Tar Heel published a letter to the editor, suggesting that the building be renamed in honor of Karen Parker.

Sources and Further Reading:

A Role Model for Change.” UNC News Services, February 19, 2015.

Karen Parker.” I Raised My Hand to Volunteer, UNC Library Exhibit, 2007.

Morgan Jones, “Karen Parker: A Woman to Remember.” For the Record, UNC University Archives blog, March 18, 2013.

Karen L. Parker Diary, Letter, and Clippings #5275, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Oral Histories:

  • February 2007 interview with the Southern Oral History Program
  • April 2007 interview with the Southern Oral History Program
  • December 2012 interview with UNC-Greensboro
  • March 2016 interview with the Southern Oral History Program

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A Cartoon Mystery Solved

An ink drawing of two trains about to collide on the same track, one labelled "Chemistry" and one labelled "Physics"above a drawing of two roosters about to fight.

A late 1870s conflict between the Chemistry and Physics departments depicted as a train wreck and a cock fight. From the University of North Carolina Papers (#40005), University Archives.

A few years ago, we posted about a series of cartoons found in the University of North Carolina Papers (#40005). The large, undated drawings showed Chemistry and Physics as colliding trains, fighting roosters, and scuffling men. We weren’t sure when the cartoons were made, or what exactly they meant. But while searching the Daily Tar Heel on today, I stumbled across a story that offers an explanation – a story of inter-departmental conflict and a creative student prank.

The June 6, 1904 issue of the Daily Tar Heel reports that the Alumni Association invited Judge Francis D. Winston, class of 1879, to speak and share his memories of his time at UNC. In his speech, he recalled:

The reopened University* found itself practically without scientific apparatus. Its scarcity caused a conflict between two members of the faculty. The institution owned a dilapidated air pump, which was claimed by two departments – Chemistry and Physics. The professor of Physics, a man of few words and quick to act, took it to his room in the end of the Old West. In his absence the professor of chemistry had it taken to Person Hall by the college servant. Professor [Ralph Henry] Graves arrived on the scene just as it reached the door. He seized it and had it returned. Professor [Alexander Fletcher Redd] Reed [sic] interfered and they came ‘mighty nigh fighting’with chemistry worsted. And this was in the days of a struggling college, over an instrument which Dr. Elisha Mitchell had condemned as useless in 1856 and which had not exhausted air in a quarter of a century.

An ink drawing showing two men in suits fighting over an air pump, which is on the ground between them. One man is labelled "Chemistry" and the other "Physics." The man labelled "Chemistry" has a speech bubble coming from his mouth that reads, "I'll be damned if you shall!" Above the men is the header "The Climax Reached."

Two men, presumably Professors Redd and Graves, shown in conflict over an air pump. The man labelled “Chemistry” has a speech bubble that reads, “I’ll be damned if you shall.” From the University of North Carolina Papers (#40005), University Archives.

The morning after this occurrence there was seen over the rostrum in the chapel, a large drawing in flaming colors, of two engines approaching each other on the same track. They were labeled Chemistry and Physics. Another scene told the story. Chemistry was derailed and demolished. Every student was at prayers that morning. The interest was manifest.

Dr. [Charles] Phillips was conducting chapel prayers that week. When he entered the door he took in the situation at a glance. When near the bull pen he broke into a quick run. He was applauded. He rushed up the steps to the hanging cartoons, but he failed to reach them, and he tried again and again. He was not without sympathy in the student body. How well do I recall their efforts of help and encouragement, when with his hand within an inch of the paper some one would cry: “Just a little more, oop-a-doop, a little higher.” But it was beyond his reach and he sat down. Wilson Caldwell, the college servant was sent for and the papers removed and prayers were said.

The next morning the artist put the incident into another form by having a game cock labeled Physics after a crestfallen, retreating rooster named Chemistry. The crowd was expectant. The good doctor saw the cartoons as he entered the door. He went to the desk with measured step. He appeared not to notice it. In the lesson that he read occurred this verse: ‘Watch ye therefore, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even or at midnight,’ and here he paused, ‘or at the cock crowing in the morning, lest coming suddenly he might find you sleeping.’

Though Winston’s memories of the cartoons and the event they commemorated – shared thirty years after the fact – may not be entirely reliable, these cartoons now make a lot more sense. We now know that they were created between 1875 and 1879 and refer to a real conflict between two departments on campus. The drawing of the two men fighting over a piece of equipment labelled “air pump” can be taken much more literally than previously thought, as we now know it depicts an actual dispute over an air pump.

Although Winston remembered the train and rooster drawings appearing separately and they are here presented on one sheet of paper, the holes and tears at the corners of these cartoons suggest that these may some of the original drawings he remembered being hung in Gerrard Hall during chapel exercises.


*The University of North Carolina was closed from February 1871 to September 1875. Learn more about the University during the Civil War and Reconstruction. 


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Did Hinton James Really Walk all the way to UNC?

The arrival of Hinton James, as imagined by the 1935 Yackety Yack.

It’s one of the most enduring legends of UNC history: a lone student, Hinton James, walking all the way from his home in Wilmington and arriving in Chapel Hill on February 12, 1795, where he reported to the one-building campus and enrolled, becoming the first student at the University of North Carolina. But did he really walk all the way here?

We’re not sure. We checked all of the records and reports that we could find and, while there are no contemporary reports confirming James’s long walk to Chapel Hill, there’s nothing to refute the story, either.

We know for certain that UNC officially opened on January 15, 1795. It was reported to be a blustery day and must have been an odd ceremony because there were no students present. The campus remained empty of students for four weeks before James arrived. For the two weeks after that, he was the only student at the school. Others trickled in after that and by 1798 James was part of the first graduating class at UNC, when a grand total of seven students received their diplomas.

Entry from the Philanthropic Society Minutes, 1795 (probably not written by Hinton James).

Hinton James did not have a lot of options for getting from Wilmington to Chapel Hill in 1795. We know he didn’t take I-40, and the arrival of railroads in North Carolina was still a few decades away. He probably traveled along recently established post roads to Raleigh and then found his way to Chapel Hill. For the long trip inland he could have taken a horse-drawn carriage, ridden on horseback, or, of course, walked. Given reports about the state of the roads during that cold, wet winter, a carriage was probably out of the question.

Hinton James’s signature from an 1838 letter reflecting on his time at UNC.

In the University Archives, there is a short account of the early days of the University written by Hinton James himself in 1838. He mentions the names of early professors and students and describes early exams, but does not talk about how he got to campus.

The earliest account that we’ve been able find, which mentions James’s mode of travel, was a speech by UNC history professor (and later President) Kemp Plummer Battle at University Day in 1880 (later reprinted in the 1886-1887 North Carolina University Magazine). Battle wrote, “Soon the first student came in — journeying all the way, hundreds of miles, from the Lower Cape Fear, on horseback doubtless, saddle-bags between his legs.”

Shirt from Hinton James Day, ca. 2010. From the UNC T-Shirt Archive.

Battle wrote about James in both volumes of his history of the University, though he told the story slightly differently in each. In the first volume, published in 1907, he wrote, “It was not until the 12th of February that the first student arrived, with no companion, all the way from the banks of the lower Cape Fear, the precursor of a long line of seekers after knowledge. His residence was Wilmington, his name Hinton James.” By saying that James arrived with “no companion,” Battle likely meant that he was the only student at the time. But this phrase may have been interpreted to mean that James made the entire trip by himself, a common detail in the story we often hear today.

After Battle’s history was published, the story began to take on the form we know today. Early 20th century issues of the Tar Heel mention James as the first student, but the first suggestion we could find of his having walked was in a 1908 article about the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, which referred to “the time when Hinton James first tramped from Wilmington to Chapel Hill and found himself the only student on the campus.” (Tar Heel, 17 September 1908).

When Kemp Battle published the second volume of his history of UNC, in 1912, the story changed a little: “Thus it happens that Hinton James has gained immortal fame by being the first to trudge through the muddy roads of the winter of 1795, and presenting himself to the delighted gaze of the first presiding Professor, Dr. David Ker, exactly four weeks after the session began.”

Note that these don’t specifically say that he walked. Can one tramp or trudge on horseback? We’re not sure.

It didn’t take much longer for the myth to begin to take shape. A 1920 Tar Heel article  said that “Hinton James established the Carolina long-distance walking record by tramping all the way from Wilmington so that he could be the first student to enter the University when it opened in 1795.” (Tar Heel, 20 June 1920).

While the story took hold, some still expressed doubt. At the University’s Sesquicentennial Convocation in April 1946, Victor Bryant, the chairman of the Legislative Committee on the Sesquicentennial, delivered the opening remarks. Bryant said, “We are told [Hinton James] had walked to Chapel Hill from his home in Wilmington, though I believe it possible that he did some hitch-hiking.”

In 2008, these UNC alums followed in Hinton James’s footsteps by walking all the way from Wilmington to Chapel Hill. (UNC News Services)

In Archibald Henderson’s 1949 book, The Campus of the First State University, James’s trek had the sound of a mythical journey: “The ambitious freshman of eighteen years, historic in primacy, trudged manfully more than 150 miles to reach the beckoning bourne of the State University on February 12, 1795.”

By the time William Snider published Light on the Hill, in 1992, there seemed to be no doubt about James’s long journey. Referring to the first student, Snider writes, “His name was Hinton James and he walked the entire distance from his native Wilmington to Chapel Hill to enroll.”

So, returning to our original question: did Hinton James really walk the whole way from Wilmington to Chapel Hill? We don’t know. There’s nothing in the University Archives that says he did, but there’s also nothing to prove otherwise. As we’ve seen, the earliest account says James “probably” came on horseback, and it took a while for the full walking story to emerge. However, it’s certainly possible that this is a true story that was simply carried orally through the generations. No matter how Hinton James got here, it had to have been a difficult trip and serves as an enduring inspiration to the the generations of students who have continued to follow him in their own journeys to Chapel Hill.

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German POWs at UNC

During World War II, UNC employed German prisoners of war in the dining halls.  Beginning in 1943, the Navy rented facilities from UNC to operate a Pre-Flight Training School and other training grounds.  As part of that arrangement, Lenoir Hall became a dining hall exclusively for Pre-Flight Cadets.  Renovations to Lenoir gave it a seating capacity of 1,800.  To maximize efficiency, waiters served the meals “family style” as opposed to having the cadets wait in a cafeteria line.  Some of those waiters were POWs bussed in from Camp Butner in Granville County, northeast of Durham.

Camp Butner received its first influx of German prisoners in Spring 1944.  It would become the largest POW camp in North Carolina with 889 prisoners as of June 1944.  While most of the Butner prisoners maintained the military installation, others worked outside the camp for civilian businesses.  A report on Camp Butner from April 1945 counted 110 prisoners employed as mess attendants at Duke University and UNC.

Excerpted from “Report of Inspection of Medical Activities at University of North Carolina: 6 November 1944” in Office of the Vice President for Finance of the University of North Carolina Records, University Archives, Wilson Library

There is very little information on these war prisoners in the University Archives.  The papers of the Vice President for Finance mentions them twice with respect to the financial arrangement between UNC and the Navy.  The Daily Tar Heel, however, offers more information about the German war prisoners and their reception on campus.  Barbara Swift, an opinion columnist, observed the prisoners “lying in the grass in front of Lenoir Dining Hall . . . laughing and talking, playing with a pack of campus poodles that happen[ed] by.”  She further speculated that “some profound change has come over these prisoners who have seen a tiny part of America.”

Others were more cynical.  A student objected to Swift’s “rosy picture of healthy boys,” instead depicting the war prisoners as “arrogant and conceited.”  He further argued that “They are not willing to accept or even listen to our beliefs and ideals.  They regard us as stupid, lazy Americans.”  This small debate in The Daily Tar Heel reveals something about the German war prisoners at UNC.  Though they are well hidden in the historical record, the German prisoners were a familiar sight to UNC students.  However, students rarely engaged with them.  It is unknown whether careful guarding, social taboos, the language barrier, or some combination thereof isolated the prisoners from the students.  People who worked in the dining hall clearly had contact with the prisoners, but the archive has no record, that we could find, of those relationships.


“National Defense Navy: Commissioning/Decommissioning, 1943-1946” in Office of the Vice President for Finance of the University of North Carolina (System) Records, University Archives, Wilson Library.

Robert D. Billinger Jr., Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008).

Barbara Swift, “They Tell Me,” Daily Tar Heel, 5 August 1944.

“Unknown Writer Insists Nazi’s Arrogant,” Daily Tar Heel, 8 August 1944.

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The UNC “White Phantoms”?

Daily Tar Heel, 5 February 1933.

Daily Tar Heel, 5 February 1933.

The UNC men’s basketball team was known informally as the “White Phantoms” from the 1920s through 1950s. It wasn’t an official nickname — they’ve always been the Tar Heels — but White Phantoms was a popular term for the team, especially among sportswriters.

The origins of the nickname are not entirely clear. A Daily Tar Heel article from 1965 attributed the nickname to Atlanta sportswriter Morgan Blake, who first used it after witnessing the quiet, quick play of the team in a tournament. At the time, the team also wore all-white uniforms, which probably contributed to the nickname.

Daily Tar Heel, 25 March 1941.

Daily Tar Heel, 25 March 1941.

The name originated in an era when sportswriters were known for their colorful language and creative headlines. UNC was not the only team with an unofficial sports-section nickname: N.C. State was the “Red Terrors,” Duke was the “Blue Imps,” and the Carolina freshman team was known as the “Tar Babies.” Most of these informal names have now faded from use, though a few have remained (like the “Wahoos” of the University of Virginia).

Daily Tar Heel, 11 February 1928.

Daily Tar Heel, 11 February 1928.

Daily Tar Heel, 12 February 1927.

Daily Tar Heel, 12 February 1927.







It’s hard to pin down exact dates for when the nickname was used, but a keyword search of the digitized Daily Tar Heel archives gives us a good idea. The first use appears in late 1925, around the time that UNC won the Southern Conference tournament in Atlanta (which supports the idea that it originated with an Atlanta sportswriter). It appears to have faded from use by 1951, possibly under the encouragement of the athletic department, which wanted to promote the consistent use of Tar Heels for all of the UNC teams.


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Carolina Firsts: W. Horace Carter

At the University Day celebration on October 11, 2016, Chancellor Carol Folt announced a new program to name scholarships after notable “firsts” in UNC history. In recognition of the individuals recognized as pioneers at UNC, the University Archives is publishing blog posts with more information about each of the twenty-one “firsts.” This post is part of that series.

carter_0404944_dthIn 1953, journalist W. Horace Carter was one of the first UNC alumni to win a Pulitzer Prize. Carter, the founder and editor of the Tabor City Tribune, was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his brave reporting on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Tabor City – reporting that led to an FBI investigation and the convictions of almost one hundred KKK members.

When Carter entered UNC in 1939, he was not only the first in his family to attend college, but the first to graduate from high school. In an interview conducted by the Southern Oral History Program, Carter said that the summer before coming to Chapel Hill, he saved up $112 while working in a cotton mill. His first day on campus, he went to Director of Admissions Roy Armstrong’s office and asked whether he thought he could get through school with the money he’d saved. Armstrong encouraged him, saying “I know a lot of people who got through on less.”

Carter immediately got a job at the UNC News Bureau, working about eight hours a day, and also joined the freshmen baseball team. He soon became a sports editor for the Tar Heel (today the Daily Tar Heel).

In 1942, as the United States entered World War II, Carter left UNC to work in a shipyard. After several months, he joined the Navy and was assigned to a hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. After serving there for a year, he returned to UNC – this time as part of the V-12 Navy College Training program. He returned to work at the News Bureau and at the Tar Heel, where he served as sports editor, then as a co-managing editor, and, starting in May 1944, as editor. He was involved in a number of campus organizations and activities, and was tapped as a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Order of the Grail.

“No Excuse for KKK,” Horace Carter, Tabor City Tribune, July 27, 1950.

After graduating from UNC, Carter moved to Tabor City, North Carolina, to start a newspaper, the Tabor City Tribune. Four years later, after the KKK paraded through the town, Carter wrote his first anti-Klan editorial, headlined “No Excuse for KKK.” Without the support of his community and at great risk to himself, he would go on to write more than 100 articles exposing and condemning Klan activities in the area. The articles drew the attention of the FBI, and nearly 100 members of the Klan were arrested and convicted as a result of the investigation.

In 1953, Carter and Willard Cole, the editor of the Whiteville News Reporter, were both honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in recognition of their work. Carter continued at the Tribune for two decades before retiring to Florida, where he was a prolific writer on nature, fishing, and other topics. He returned to the Tribune in the 1990s, working there until shortly before his death in September 2009.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Editor and the Dragon: Horace Carter Fights the Klan, Center for the Study of the American South,

“Carter Ends Brilliant, Though Short, TH Career,” Muriel Richter, The Tar Heel, 24 June, 1944. (available via on campus or with a UNC ONYEN account)

“No Excuse for KKK,” Horace Carter, Tabor City Tribune, 27 July, 1950

Oral History with W. Horace Carter, January 17, 1976. Interview B-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“W. Horace Carter, 88, a Publisher Whose Paper Challenged the Klan, Dies,” Bruce Weber, the New York Times, 20 September, 2009,

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1982 — UNC’s First Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

In 1982, UNC held its first annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Day Celebration. The multi-day celebration included a variety of events honoring Dr. King and his legacy. The featured speaker at the University-wide celebration was Dr. Prezell R. Robinson, president of St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh and of the United Negro College Fund.  Originally scheduled for January 15, the celebration was postponed due to snow and ice in Chapel Hill. The event featuring Dr. Robinson was held on January 28, 1982.

Program from the Records of the Office of Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Christopher C. Fordham, 1980-1988 (40024).

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North Carolina Governors Who Went to UNC

When Roy Cooper was sworn in as Governor of North Carolina on January 1st, he became the 32nd North Carolina Governor to have attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here’s the full list.

William Miller Attended 1802 In office 1814- 1817
John Branch Class of 1801 In office 1817-1820
John Owen Attended 1804 In office 1828-1830
David Lowry Swain Attended 1821-1822 In office 1832-1835
Richard Dobbs Spaight Class of 1815 In office 1835-1836
John Motley Morehead Class of 1817 In office 1841-1845
William Alexander Graham Attended 1882-1884 In office 1845-1849
Charles Manly Class of 1814 In office 1849-1851
Warren Winslow Class of 1827 In office 1854-1855
John Willis Ellis Class of 1841 In office 1859-1861
Henry Toole Clark Class of 1826 In office 1861-1862
Zebulon Vance Attended 1851-1852 In office 1862-1865;       1877-1879
Tod Robinson Caldwell Class of 1840 In office 1871-1874
Alfred Moore Scales Attended 1888-1890 In office 1885-1889
Thomas Michael Holt Attended 1849-1850 In office 1891-1893
Elias Carr Attended 1855-1857 In office 1893-1897
Daniel Lindsay Russell Attended 1860-1862 (honorary degree given 1911) In office 1897-1901
Charles Brantley Aycock Class of 1880 In office 1901-1905
William Walton Kitchin School of Law, Class of 1910 In office 1909-1913
Locke Craig Class of 1880 In office 1913-1917
Angus Wilton McLean Attended the School of Law 1890-1892 In office 1925-1929
O. Max Gardner Attended 1905-1906 In office 1929-1933
John C.B. Ehringhaus Class of 1901 In office 1933-1937
Clyde R. Hoey Attended the School of Law 1899 In office 1937-1941
William B. Umstead Class of 1916 In office 1953-1954
Luther H. Hodges Class of 1919 In office 1954-1961
Terry Sanford Class of 1941 In office 1961-1965
Dan K. Moore Class of 1927 In office 1965-1969
James Holshouser School of Law, Class of 1960 In office 1973-1977
James B. Hunt, Jr. School of Law, Class of 1964 In office 1977-1985;      1993-2001
Mike Easley Class of 1972 In office 2001-2009
Roy Cooper Class of 1979 Currently in office

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A Holiday Tradition: Frederick Koch’s Reading of a Christmas Carol

A drawing, in green on a white background, of Frederick Koch seated at a table with a candle on it, holding a book and pointing as he reads.

An illustration of Koch performing A Christmas Carol, 1943 (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

When Carolina Playmakers founder Frederick Koch came to UNC in 1918, he brought with him a holiday tradition – annual dramatic readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Each year, he performed the classic Christmas tale on campus and in towns across North Carolina and beyond, sometimes performing it 15 or more times each season. The tradition started in 1906, when Koch was at the University of North Dakota:

Far away, it seems now, on the winter prairie of Dakota I was impelled with the desire to read again for my own enjoyment Charles Dickens’ immortal ghost story, A Christmas Carol. Fresh from Harvard, I was then a very young instructor at the State University of North Dakota… In that lonely isolation on the Great Flat I was pretty homesick, I guess, when I thought of the cheerful fireside associations I had left behind me in the East – of home, and friends at Christmastime. It was a Sunday afternoon that I read the story, and felt myself greatly cheered by it. So much so, that I mentioned the fact to a little group at supper in the University commons that evening with the comment: “Everybody ought to read Dickens’ Christmas Carol every year before Christmas.”

The dean of women spoke up: “Well, if you feel that way about it, you ought to read it for us.” On the following Sunday afternoon, the last Sunday before Christmas, I read A Christmas Carol, seated in a great armchair beside a crackling wood-fire. Outside the snow was blowing and drifting with a bitter wind, but inside all was warm with the glow from the hearth and from the mellow light of the candles. I remember distinctly the big bowl of crisp, green holly leaves someone had brought, and the soft singing of girls’ voices of the old songs we cherish at Christmas: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World.” So it began. The next year, and the next, and the next.

-Frederick Koch (Burlington Daily Times-News, December 13, 1933)

(An audio clip from one of Koch’s performances, year unknown, from the Records of the Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures, University Archives)
Program for a 1943 performance of A Christmas Carol (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

Program for a 1943 performance of A Christmas Carol (From the Carolina Playmakers Scrapbook, 1942-1943, North Carolina Collection)

Koch’s performances brought the story to life without the aid of elaborate costumes or sets. The Raleigh News and Observer said that at a 1919 performance in Gerrard Hall, he “[sat] alone on the stage, the chapel dark except for the light at his table, with a background of Christmas trees gaily decorated behind him.” According to the newspaper’s report, he read “with spirit, vividness, and a fine touch of feeling,” and the two intermissions during the show featured carols by university singing groups.

By the end of his life, Koch had performed the story over 245 times – 39 times on the UNC campus. His readings had been broadcast on radio and television, and were a beloved annual tradition for many. After Koch’s death in 1944, the tradition was taken up by Samuel Selden, Koch’s successor as chair of the Dept. of Dramatic Art and director of the Carolina Playmakers. From 1966 through the early 1980s, the annual reading was performed by Earl Wynn of the Department of Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures.

See also: “A Christmas Carol with a Playmakers’ Flair,” North Carolina Miscellany

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Michael Eric Dyson’s 1996 Commencement Speech

Twenty years ago this week, UNC professor Michael Eric Dyson delivered the commencement address at the winter graduation ceremony. The speech, “Is America Still a Dream?,” was immediately controversial.

Daily Tar Heel, 7 January 1997.

Daily Tar Heel, 7 January 1997.

Dyson, a faculty member in the department of communications, wrote about rap music and contemporary African American culture, topics he addressed in his commencement speech. Dyson spoke first about the idea of the American dream, saying, “The only hope for extending the American Dream is an acknowledgment that for many it has not been achieved.” He talked about the anger and frustration of many young people in the so-called “Generation X” and argued that youth culture in general, and rap music in particular, “sometimes conceals, at other times reveals, personal and social pain, the stark underside of the American Dream.”

Defending contemporary rap against its critics, Dyson said that in the work of many rappers “there is also a celebration of the freedom of lyrical creativity, rhetorical dexterity and racial signification.” He gave examples, quoting from the lyrics of Snoop Doggy Dogg and Notorious B.I.G., some of which included profanity.

Dyson encouraged the graduates to “get rid of the amnesia that clogs the arteries of American national memory” and to acknowledge that “the American Dream has been long in the making, and that your piece of it today as a college graduate, has come at great expense.” In his closing remarks, he commented on Michael Jordan’s recent gift to the UNC School of Social Work, and expressed disappointment that Jordan did not donate to support the new Black Cultural Center at Carolina.


Daily Tar Heel, 8 January 1997.

The use of occasional profanity, the criticism of Jordan, and the overall challenging tone of the speech were controversial. Apparently some students and parents walked out during the speech, but the larger outcry came later in local media and in letters from alumni to UNC Chancellor Michael Hooker. Several parents who attended the ceremony wrote to Hooker with complaints, as did many more alumni who read about it in local papers.

In his responses, Hooker was often apologetic, writing to one parent, “In my judgment, our speaker could have advanced his thesis without using offensive language, especially at a family-oriented ceremony such as graduation. Commencement is an occasion that calls for challenging, but also inspiring and uplifting comments.” A Daily Tar Heel editorial criticized Hooker, writing, “More than anything, he should have stood up for the truth behind Dyson’s comments. In sparking such controversy, he dared to present a harsh truth in place of sugar-coated platitudes.

Ultimately, the focus on the rap lyrics and the comments about Jordan overshadowed the larger content and message of Dyson’s speech. A Charlotte Observer editorial a few days later noted that his message was “not so radical,” continuing: “He was challenging graduates to understand our American history, the good and the bad in all its complexity.” In the Daily Tar Heel coverage of the controversy, Jane Brown, who was Chair of the Faculty, said, “The focus on the language in the rap lyrics distracted from the main message. (Dyson) was speaking for people who are rarely spoken for. A lot of people appreciated that.” The DTH editorial was even more direct: “Dyson, instead of facing criticism, should have received a standing ovation.”

Dyson left UNC in 1997 for a faculty position at Columbia University. He is currently on the faculty at Georgetown University and continues to write and speak about African American history and culture.

Sources and Further Reading:

Michael Eric Dyson:

Charlotte Observer, 22 December 1996.

Daily Tar Heel, 7 January 1997 and 8 January 1997.

Independent Weekly, August 20-26, 1997.

Office of Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Michael Hooker Records, 1995-1999. Series 1, folder 29 (Commencement: General, January – March 1997). University Archives.

Office of President of the University of North Carolina (System): C. D. Spangler, Jr., Records, 1986-1997. Series 2.1, folder 809 (Commencement, December 15, 1996 – Mike Dyson Controversy). University Archives.

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