New Names on the Landscape

Zora Neale Hurston Hall sign in the design of a plaque.
Sign for Zora Neale Hurston Hall, created by UNC art student Jeanine Tatlock in 2017.

In the wake of the recent decision by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to rescind the 16-year moratorium on building renaming that was enacted in 2015, many members of the UNC community have suggested potential new namesakes for campus buildings and public spaces.

In this post, we’re gathering some of the names that have come up most often and sharing suggested resources for learning more. We’ll update the post with new names and resources based on the feedback we receive.

Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray’s name often comes up in discussions about potential new namesakes for UNC buildings. An influential and inspirational author, activist, lawyer, and Episcopal priest, Murray had lifelong ties to UNC. She was a descendant of university trustee James Strudwick Smith and was related to benefactor Mary Ruffin Smith (namesake of Smith Building at UNC). Murray applied to attend graduate school at UNC in 1938 and was rejected because she was an African American. Four decades later, in recognition of Murray’s exceptional career, UNC offered Murray an honorary degree. She ultimately declined, citing the university’s continued failure to provide equal opportunities to Black students. UNC would not be the first University to name a building for Murray. In 2017 Yale University dedicated Pauli Murray College, a new residential building.

Suggested Resources:

henry owl

Henry Owl, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, became the first Native American student to attend UNC when he enrolled to attend graduate school in 1928. He graduated the following year with a master’s degree in history. Owl’s thesis, The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Before and After Removal, is an important history of the Cherokee.

Suggested Resources:

james cates

Plaque honoring James Cates
This plaque honoring James Cates was installed in the Pit by student activists in February 2019. Photo by Sarah Lundgren, Daily Tar Heel.

Chapel Hill native James Cates was murdered by a white supremacist biker gang in 1970 following a dance on campus. After he was stabbed in the Pit, crucial minutes passed before Cates received medical attention, a delay many on the scene attributed to the inaction of local police. Cates’s killers were ultimately acquitted by an Orange County jury. In 1971 students rallied to protest Cates’s killing. In 2019, while the University community continued to debate the toppling of the statue on top of the Confederate monument, student activists installed a plaque commemorating Cates in the Pit. The memorial was soon removed by campus officials.

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Zora Neale Hurston

Banner reading "Hurston Hall" displayed over the door of Saunders Hall in 2015.
Hurston Hall banner on (then) Saunders Hall, April 2015. Photo by Stephanie Lamm, Daily Tar Heel.

In the mid 2010s, UNC student and faculty activists urged campus administrators to rename Saunders Hall for author Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston had a brief connection to UNC through playwright and faculty member Paul Green. Hurston visited campus many times in the late 1930s. She spoke at a drama conference on campus in 1939 and participated in a playwrighting workshop with UNC students at Green’s house. The UNC Board of Trustees ultimately removed Saunders’s name from the building, but neglected to honor Hurston, choosing the new name of Carolina Hall.

Suggested Resources:

Wilson Caldwell

Wilson Swain Caldwell was a 19th-century educator, public official, and university employee. He was enslaved by UNC President David Lowry Swain and was the son of November Caldwell, who was enslaved by the first university president, Joseph Caldwell. After the Civil War, Caldwell helped to found schools for Black students and became the first African American elected official in Orange County when he was elected Justice of the Peace. After the end of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow laws restricting opportunities for Black North Carolinians, Caldwell returned to UNC to work as the head janitor on campus. He is memorialized, along with his father and two other enslaved workers on campus, by an obelisk in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.

Suggested Resources:

  • “Finding Wilson Caldwell: The Study of Slavery at UNC.” Carolina Alumni Review, January 2020. [Online access available to General Alumni Association members.]
  • “Honoring an Unsung Legacy.” University Communications, 27 February 2017.
  • Kemp P. Battle, Sketch of the Life and Character of Wilson Caldwell, 1895. [Note: This account by University President Battle uses condescending language and may not be reliable in its account of Caldwell’s words and thoughts, but it is useful for learning some of the details of Caldwell’s life.]

Elizabeth Brooks and Mary Smith

Elizabeth Brooks and Mary Smith were UNC employees and activists. While working at Lenoir dining hall in the late 1960s, Brooks and Smith advocated for improved pay and working conditions for food service workers at UNC. When these demands were not met, they led a strike that drew the attention of campus and state leaders and ultimately resulted in a change in supervision, improved pay, and the establishment of a statewide minimum wage. After UNC outsourced food service to a private company and working conditions failed to improve, Brooks and Smith were active in a second strike. Their efforts, in collaboration with members of the Black Student Movement and other campus allies, have served as an inspiration for future generations of activists and campus workers as they continue to work toward improved pay and treatment for the University’s front-line employees. 

Suggested Resources:

James Walker, Jr.

James Walker, Jr. was one of the first African American students to attend UNC. A North Carolina native, Army veteran, and alumnus of North Carolina Central University, Walker’s application to attend law school at UNC was initially rejected because of the University’s policy to refuse admission to African Americans. Walker joined the lawsuit that eventually led to the integration of graduate programs at UNC in 1951 and enrolled that summer. While at UNC, Walker fought to integrate social spaces on campus, pushing for the removal of segregated seating in Kenan Stadium and appealing to the Chancellor when university administration refused to allow an integrated dance on campus. After graduation, Walker had a long and successful legal career combined with a continued commitment to Civil Rights activism. In 2019, the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies announced a plan to commission a portrait of Walker, who was the first Black member of  the Societies, UNC’s oldest student organization. 

Suggested Resources:

slayton evans, jr.

Slayton Evans, Jr. was the first African American faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill. A native of Mississippi and alumnus of Tougaloo College, Evans was hired at UNC in 1974 and remained on the faculty until he passed away in 2001. He was named Kenan professor of Chemistry in 1992. Evans developed a reputation as an outstanding teacher and mentor and earned multiple university and professional awards throughout his career.

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8 thoughts on “New Names on the Landscape”

  1. I would like to advocate for Professor Slayton A. Evans, Jr., UNC’s first Black faculty member. He was a beloved member of the chemistry department for decades. I think it’s important to have buildings named for great scientists as well as those in the arts and letters.

    1. Hi, KT! That’s a great idea to name a building after Professor Evans. It’s in keeping with the way the University has already named so many buildings after its own.

    2. I would like to see Paul Wellstone remembered on a building name. There’s a small memorial for him already on campus.

    3. I would also like to recommend Dr. Slayton Evans. Although I knew him personally, his knowledge and love for chemistry was evident in all he did. He was always engaging and had an amazing smile. He loved fishing, music, food and was so proud of his son and daughter. He spoke of them endlessly! Several of my friends took his classes as undergraduate students and spoke about how he always made time for them.

  2. I read with overwhelming excitement that the name Dr. Slayton A. Evans, Jr. is among those under consideration for potential new namesakes for buildings and public spaces at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I would like to add my voice to those advocating for his selection.

    Dr. Evans’s journey to UNC-Chapel Hill began in the forties in Meridian, Mississippi. His former graduate students will have likely heard the story of how he conducted his first experiment, a rocket prototype, and blew a massive crater in the backyard. Unimpeded by this minor setback, young Dr. Evans pursued his passion with boundless curiosity as well as with the encouragement of his parents, Slayton A. Evans, Sr. and Corine Marie Evans. He graduated from St. Joseph’s Catholic School and attended Tougaloo College during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. A hotbed of activism, the campus served regularly as a rest stop for Freedom Riders and hosted visits from such luminaries as Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the midst of this time of social transformation, Dr. Evans joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, graduating with top honors in 1965.

    Dr. Evans went on to earn an MS in chemistry from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1966 and was awarded a PhD in chemistry from Case Western Reserve University four years later. He completed post-doctoral work at the University of Texas at Arlington and Notre Dame University and joined the chemistry faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1974, the year I was born.

    My father’s tenure at UNC is punctuated by more awards and accolades than I have space for in this post and probably more than you have the patience to read (his résumé was 14 pages long, single-spaced). I might mention the Fulbright-Hays fellowship in 1984; the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1998; the UNC Board of Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1999; and the American Chemical Society Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in Chemical Service in 2000. I might also mention his active membership on committees of The National Science Foundation, The National Academy of Science, and The American Chemical Society. As chair of the Pogue Scholarship selection committee (1988-1999) and a member of the Morehead Foundation central selection committee (1988-1997), Dr. Evans worked tirelessly to bring more minority candidates into the selection pool. From 1994 until his death in 2001, he served as a member of the board of directors of the Arts and Sciences Foundation. And, of course, there were the graduate students from all over the world, a multicultural fleet of scientists whom Dr. Evans affectionately referred to as “superstars” and who are, through their own research, scholarship, and brilliance, carrying forward Dr. Evans’s legacy.

    In light of recent events — in particular the removal of the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi State flag — it bears mentioning how utterly improbable and thus all the more remarkable Dr. Evans’s achievements were. His students will recall his extraordinary capacity for making them feel special, for helping them make sense of complex concepts, and for encouraging them to expand their horizons further than they ever believed they could. Dr. Evans’s approach to pedagogy was rooted in a close-knit community of young, inspired, and passionate people who put their lives on the line for change and did not balk at adversity but ran headlong into it. His was a generation of young Black men and women raised on the firm belief that there was no alternative to excellence and no excuse for mediocrity. He took this belief with him into the classroom, into the lab, and into his home.

    There are many people who, I am ashamed to say, are far better positioned than I am to speak at length and in detail about my father’s contribution to the study of organophosphorous chemistry. It is owing to their expertise that I am able to appreciate my father’s profound influence on this area of research. I am better qualified to speak to his gifts as a patient teacher, a loving father, a proud Black man, and devoted sibling and son. It is to him that I owe the lessons that have guided me through my life as a writer and educator, the most impressive of which is perhaps this: We were sitting together at the kitchen table he had built in the basement of Venable Hall — the table that is now my writing desk — when he explained that, while the quickest way from A to C is undoubtedly B, it’s always worth exploring what happens if you go via Z instead. Lean into the unknown rather than the convenient and see what you discover on the way — that’s good science (and, as it turns out, good writing as well).

    You have perhaps noticed by now that I am firmly biased in favor of Dr. Evans’s name and that there is no hero, alive or dead, you could add to your list to sway me. Still, I hope you will consider the content of this humble plea in spite of the adoration I have only barely tried to keep at bay. I applaud the lifting of the moratorium and can only insist that memorializing Dr. Slayton A. Evans, Jr., in this way will send a powerful message of welcome to prospective students at UNC, especially those who, like him, are compelled to understand life at its most essential and most profound.

    Shortly before his death —14-page résumé notwithstanding — my father lamented that he hadn’t done enough with his life; he hadn’t made enough of a difference. If only he knew.


    Amy R. Evans
    Writer / Educator
    Brooklyn, NY

  3. I am in support of The Honorable, Dr. Slayton Evans, Jr. This Legend has been among you for years in the legacy of The Chemistry department. A man well deserving of this great honor. He met people where they were in their walk. I know this first hand because he is my uncle. He has been a very influential part if my life. This will be a wonserful choice!

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