Segregated Spaces at the UNC School of Dentistry, 1953

Signpost showing two signs with arrows: "Patient Information White" and "Patient Information Colored"
Detail from a photo of the UNC School of Dentistry, ca. 1950s, showing directions to the segregated information counters. UNC Photo Lab Collection (P0031).

The University of North Carolina enforced racial segregation in campus buildings well into the mid 20th century. There is clear evidence of this in documents, publications, and in the recollections of people who studied and worked at Carolina. However, photographs of segregated spaces at UNC are often hard to find. Recently we found a couple of photos from the UNC Photo Lab collection that provide clear evidence of how public spaces on campus continued to be segregated by race into the 1950s.

Sign on a wall reading "Colored Waiting Room. 103 A thru F"
Detail from a photo of the UNC School of Dentistry, ca. 1950s, showing a sign for the “Colored Waiting Room.” UNC Photo Lab Collection (P0031)

These photos are from a series taken by university photographers to publicize the opening of the new dental school building at Carolina. The new dental building (now known as “First Dental”) was a significant milestone in dental education and service at Carolina — in addition to teaching and learning facilities, the new building marked the beginning of patient services offered by the School of Dentistry. Dentistry faculty and students offered clinical services to patients from the local community and across North Carolina. A memo about the opening of the new building states: “There are separate, complete facilities for white and for Negro patients.” (Records of UNC President Gordon Gray, collection 4008, folder 383). The description of separate facilities was repeated in a Daily Tar Heel story about the dental building in December 1952.

The note about facilities for Black patients was intentional. The University clearly wanted to highlight the fact that it would be offering dental services to Black patients who might otherwise rightly have assumed that they would not be admitted to medical facilities at Carolina. However, the announcement was also clear to specify that the spaces would be segregated by race.

The publicity photos also included two showing patients in the separate waiting rooms. It’s hard to tell whether or not these photos represent typical conditions in the waiting rooms, but the differences are striking. The waiting room for white patients is spacious and shows just two people waiting. The waiting room for Black patients is significantly more crowded, with every seat full and one of the patients having to stand.

Waiting room at the UNC School of Dentistry, ca. 1950s. Image shows two white women sitting on couches, one reading a magazine, the other holding a teacup.
Waiting room at the UNC School of Dentistry, ca. 1950s. This appears to the waiting room for white patients.
Waiting room at the UNC School of Dentistry. The room is full, with Black patients filling every seat and one woman standing.
Waiting room at the UNC School of Dentistry, ca. 1950s. This appears to be the separate waiting room for Black patients.

It is noteworthy that the University established segregated patient spaces in 1952, just over a year after UNC was forced to begin admitting Black students to graduate programs. In the summer of 1951, Black students entered Carolina for the first time, enrolling in the School of Law, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Medicine, which was adjacent to the new dental building.

It’s not clear, at least from our initial research, how long the facility continued to operate separate waiting rooms for Black and white patients. When local high school students began challenging segregated businesses in Chapel Hill in February 1960, the protests soon spread to UNC buildings. In April 1963, the UNC chapter of the NAACP picketed North Carolina Memorial Hospital in protest of continued racial segregation of some hospital patients. Most likely racial segregation in the hospital and dental facilities continued in some form until the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act in 1964.

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