Edwina Thomas Applies to Graduate School at UNC in 1938

After working its way through the Missouri state and federal courts, the landmark case Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada challenging segregation in higher education came to a close in 1938. In December of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Lloyd Gaines had been unfairly denied admission to the University of Missouri Law School because he was Black. When Gaines first challenged his rejection, the University offered to pay for him to attend law school outside the state. Gaines’ lawyer, Charles Hamilton Houston, masterfully convinced the courts that if Gaines could not attend the University of Missouri, the state would have to build a law school for Blacks equal to that of whites, recalling the “separate but equal” doctrine laid down in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The decision was to enroll Gaines at the University of Missouri.

That year, in 1938, with the Gaines decision clearly having created fissures in the walls of Jim Crow, Black students continued pushing on the walls surrounding UNC. In late 1938, Pauli Murray applied to UNC’s graduate school and was denied. Her subsequent exchange with President Frank Porter Graham reveals both her genius and the tenuousness of Graham’s liberal position on race and integration.

Another Black woman applied earlier that year in 1938. Her name was Edwina Thomas. Her exchanges with Frank Porter Graham and Dean W.W. Pierson can also be found with Pauli Murray’s via the Records of the Office of the President of the UNC System Frank Porter Graham (1932-1949). When Thomas wrote to UNC asking the Dean for an application, the Gaines case had not yet been decided, but she was certainly very well aware of the details of the case and its chances for success.

Scan of letter April 1938 Dean Pearson to Edwina Thomas
In April 1938, Dean W.W. Pierson wrote to Edwina Thomas explaining why she would not be admitted to graduate school at UNC.

In January of 1938, Edwina Thomas, student at Talladega College in Alabama and of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, applied to graduate school at UNC. She requested an application by mail, which she filled out and returned. It is very unlikely that applications to the University asked for race – surely it was just assumed all applicants would be white. It appears to have taken some time for the Dean to realize that Thomas was Black. Pierson responds to Thomas at Talladega, dated April 27, 1938: “It is my understanding that it is the public policy of the State of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina not to admit members of the colored race to the University. Such admission would entail a reversal of a social policy of long standing and would require action to that effect by the trustees of the institution. I withhold therefore a ruling as to your academic eligibility for admission.”

In May, Thomas writes directly to President Frank Porter Graham, with echoes of the Gaines case in her response: “As I am unable financially to cope with the expenses of graduate schools outside my own state, I should like very much for you to advise me as to just what I can expect from the State of North Carolina in the way of help financially if I am to be denied admission to the State University because of my race.” Graham does respond to Thomas, assuring that despite the “laws of North Carolina with regard to providing separate schools for the two races, and the long established public policy of the state, I took the matter of your letter up with the Governor of our state,” and that the General Assembly should discuss the issue at some point the next year.

Scan of letter June 1938 Edwina Thomas to Frank Graham
In June 1938, Edwina Thomas writes from Winston-Salem stating that she is anxious to hear new of decisions regarding higher education and race.

In June 1938, Thomas writes Graham again, and on the letterhead of Wentz Memorial Congregational Church, where her father was Reverend. Referring to any possible decisions made at the state level regarding admission or funding of Black education, she says, “I look forward with great anticipation to any new developments along this line.”

Undeterred, Edwina Thomas still presses President Graham, writing from her home in Winston-Salem in August 1938, indicating that she is very much aware of legal and political tides within North Carolina: “Since a special session of the state legislature has been called, I was wondering the problem of facilities for negro graduate students could not be presented at this time. If this matter could be disposed of during this special session it would be considerably helpful for students, like myself, who wish to attend graduate school next year (next school year).” She closes, “I do hope that this very pressing problem can be mitigated soon.” Graham responds with news that neither education funding nor admission of Black students were discussed at the special session and would not be revisited until January 1939.

This is the extent of correspondence between Edwina Thomas and UNC administrators. She would not waste time waiting and went on to graduate school at Ohio State. Engaged as a scholar and leader, she became a lifelong member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. It is not clear if Graham took Thomas’ case specifically to the Governor at the time, as he claimed. The result would have been predictable, as Governor Clyde Hoey was a virulent segregationist and white supremacist.

Photograph of Edwina Thomas from 1963
Photograph of Edwina Thomas, The Ivy Leaf, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, June 1963

Edwina Theolyne Thomas was born in 1918 in Alabama to parents the Reverend George Jefferson Thomas and Winnie Cornelia Whitaker. Edwina’s father, originally from Georgia, was the leader of Winston-Salem’s Wentz Memorial Church, a Congregational Church. Before taking over at Wentz in 1924, George Thomas had been the field superintendent for Congregational Churches in Georgia and the Carolinas. When Thomas applied to UNC, she was 20 years old. A few years later when Thomas was 22, she married attorney H. Alfred Glascor, of Columbus, Ohio, and they lived some time in his hometown. Her marriage ended and she moved to Wisconsin, where Thomas became a renowned clinical psychologist at the Milwaukee County Memorial Hospital, a position she held for more than twenty years. There, she formed its first hospital outpatient unit in 1949. Tragically, Thomas died in a car accident in 1968 at age 50, and was mourned by the Milwaukee Star newspaper with a poem, “The Milwaukee Star mourns the loss/Of such an asset to our community;/But realize that one who lived so well/Will continue in the hereafter with impunity.”

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.

Suggested Resources:

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. https://www.unc.edu/discover/honoring-unsung-legacy/
  • Kemp P. Battle, Sketch of the Life and Character of Wilson Caldwell, 1895. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/items/show/3640. [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.

Suggested Resources:

 

New Collection Alert: Student Musical Groups

A collection of materials from UNC student musical groups is now available for use in Wilson Library. The collection includes materials from several UNC Student Musical Groups including the Clef Hangers, Loreleis, Tar Heel Voices, and Pauper Players. Collection materials range from the mid 1980s through the mid 2000s, with a lot from the 1990s. The collection includes flyers, posters, and recordings from the groups’ performances.

Student Musical Groups at UNC-Chapel Hill, 1985-2005: https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/40328/

The Myth of the Wilson Library Dunce Cap

VIew of Polk Place on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
This mid 20th century photo shows the dunce cap effect of the Bell Tower on Wilson Library when viewed from South Building. UNC Image Collection, NC Collection Photo Archives.

Have you heard the story that the Bell Tower was intentionally placed right behind Wilson Library so that, when viewed from South Building, the top of the tower looks like a dunce cap on the round dome of the library?

The dunce cap story has been one of the enduring campus legends for decades. The story originally told was that John Motley Morehead, angered that Louis Round Wilson wouldn’t let him put the tower on top of the new library building, put it right behind to make fun of Wilson. I’ve heard a slightly different version on campus recently, which attributes it to an ongoing battle between two of the university’s “founding families,” the Moreheads and the Wilsons, making them seem like UNC’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys.

As with many campus legends, this one is not true, though some of the stories hint at what really happened.

The Bell Tower was the idea of John Motley Morehead, the Carolina alumnus and industrialist who donated the Morehead Planetarium and established the Morehead scholarships. According to Louis Round Wilson, Morehead’s first proposal was made during the renovation of South Building in the 1920s. Morehead, who had been interested in bringing a tower with chimes to the campus, suggested funding the construction of a tower on top of South Building under the condition that it be renamed the Morehead Building. The Trustees refused, and Morehead looked for other sites.

Morehead turned his attention to the new library building planned for the opposite end of Polk Place, and suggested a bell tower on top of it. This was indeed rejected by librarian Louis Round Wilson. Wilson spoke from his knowledge of bell towers on top of buildings at Cornell University and the University of Illinois. He wrote that, while pleasing to the campus in general, “the ringing of bells and chimes immediately above the reading rooms of the libraries in working hours played havoc with mental concentration and quiet study.”

Morehead had yet another idea: when the university announced a plan to move the large flagpole on campus from McCorkle Place to its current location in the center of Polk Place, Morehead suggested this as the perfect site for the bell tower. The flagpole could be placed on top.

Finally, by 1930, a location was settled. Though initially appearing to be at the very southern end of the campus, long-range plans to expand the university to the south would put the bell tower at the center of the campus, which is where it stands today. The Morehead-Patterson Memorial Bell Tower was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1931.

"Wilson Wears Dunce Cap" article, Daily Tar Heel, August 25, 1975
Daily Tar Heel, 25 August 1975.

It’s not clear when the dunce cap story began. The earliest published reference to it that I could find was in a 1975 Daily Tar Heel article. The author of the story, Dan Fesperman, had the advantage at the time of being able to go straight to one of the sources: 99-year-old Louis Round Wilson was still living in Chapel Hill. Wilson reviewed the debate over the placement of the tower and then addressed the legend directly. “When Wilson was asked if there was even a speck of truth in the Bell Tower legend, he said, ‘It wasn’t designed for that purpose at all.’ He then added, ‘But it does look that way – like a fool’s cap.”

Sources: “The Saga of the Morehead Patterson Bell Tower.” In Louis Round Wilson’s Historical Sketches. Durham: Moore Publishing Co., 1976. https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb1408393

Daily Tar Heel, 25 August 1975. http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn92073228/1975-08-25/ed-1/seq-44/

Henry Patrick Merritt, Jr.: An Archival Photo Mystery Revealed

We are pleased to present this guest post from UNC-Chapel Hill student Autumn Linford. Autumn is a Park Fellow in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Aros Coke Cecil’s photographs could be the work of any UNC undergrad of any era. Playing sports, the Old Well, friends goofing around, socializing with pretty co-eds: the images in Cecil’s 1917-1918 album wouldn’t seem out of place on a student’s Instagram page today.  There are photos of students studying, photos of students procrastinating, and even one of Cecil and a friend clowning around with a classroom skeleton (see figure 1).

There is only one photo in the album that stands out. A young man, college-aged, stands in a dorm room holding a bucket and broom (see figure 2) Pennants and framed pictures are tacked to the wall behind him. It isn’t the scene that sets this photograph apart. It’s the fact that the young man, who looks at home casually leaning up against a desk with neatly stacked books, is black.

Black men and women weren’t allowed to attend the university as students until 1951, following a federal court order that led to the admission of black students to graduate programs. African American undergraduates were not admitted until 1955. There were blacks on campus in 1917, but it was strictly in the role of staff, cooking or doing maintenance jobs or, as was likely case of the young man pictured, cleaning. That this man was photographed by a white student is surprising. That his photograph was carefully preserved in a book alongside Cecil’s other college memories seems remarkable.

While we know something about the photographer, nothing was written down about the young man pictured other than the suggestion that he may have been a janitor for the university’s dorms. Was he friends with Cecil? Was he seen as a mascot to the men in the dorm? Did he appreciate being photographed, or dislike it? Was he important to Cecil, or was this a way to finish out a roll of film?

There is so much that we can never know about this man, but I wanted to try to identify him with however much information I could. Utilizing the resources available online and in the Wilson Library’s collections, I was able to identify the young man in question as Henry Patrick Merritt, Jr.

My process was systematic and replicable. I first confirmed the janitor was, in fact, standing in a dorm room by examining other photographs in the collection and finding other shots of the same room. I then went through each page of Chapel Hill’s 1920 census record and found all black men employed on campus. I narrowed the list down to those working in dormitories, and then again to janitors, leaving about 10 men. It is difficult to tell how old the man in the picture is, but a conservative guess suggests he was between the ages of 15 and 35 at the time of the photograph. By eliminating all men whose ages were outside that frame, I was left with only three names: Johnson Merritt, Jr., Lee Baldwin, and Henry Merritt, Jr.

Other photographs in Cecil’s collection showed the college men receiving their draft information for WWI in 1917. I thought it likely that the black men on campus had received their notices at the same time. I looked up all three men in the WWI databases and found each of their war registration cards. In 1917, Johnson Merritt, Jr. wrote in his occupation as gardener for the college. Lee Baldwin listed his occupation as a laborer.  Henry Merritt, Jr., age 19, listed himself as a janitor for the dormitories at the University of North Carolina.

Merritt was born March 15, 1900 in Chapel Hill. His father, Henry Merritt, Sr. was a long-time janitor for the on-campus fraternity Kappa Sigma. Henry Jr. was the oldest of nine children: six sisters and two brothers. With so many younger siblings, the income Merritt made by working at the university would have been crucial to his family’s survival. At the time, janitors on campus were paid $14.93 a week, a wage that covered barely half of the average living expenses for blacks living in town at the time. Despite that, the wage was still considered “relatively high” for people of color at the time.[1]

After the war, Merritt worked for C. and P. Telephone Co. His father continued to work as a janitor at the university and features prominently in several editions of the Daily Tar Heel, including one with a four-column photograph in 1926 (see figure 3).[2]

A newspaper article titled "Five Cheerleaders at the Game Saturday" with a photo a five black men.
fig. 3 Henry Merritt, Sr. is pictured far right. [Click image to view article.]
We don’t know why Cecil took his photograph of Merritt, or why it was important enough for him to keep. We can’t know what Merritt felt while he posed or what he was thinking as he cleaned up after men he wasn’t allowed to call peers. But we do now know his name. In conjunction with the archivists at the Wilson Library, I have already begun the process of updating the system to include Merritt’s name and basic information. It is by treating him with dignity that we can begin to reckon with the past’s efforts to erase him and others like him.

References

[1] Dorothy Fahs, report. “Income and expenditure in 28 Chapel Hill Negro Families,” University of North Carolina Wilson Library.

[2] R.W. Madry, “Five Cheerleaders at the Game Saturday.” Daily Tar Heel, November 2, 1926. https://bit.ly/2rLme0j

The Black Arts Festival, 1972-1981

There are many forms of protest and one of them is the uninhibited celebration of your culture and the artistic achievements of your peers. Last month at the Project STAND (Student Activism Now Documented) symposium in Atlanta, one of the student panelists emphasized the necessity for uplifting depictions of black joy in addition to recognizing some of the struggles of activism. The Black Arts Festival, held by the Black Student Movement from 1972 to 1981, is an example of such joy.

Blue Poster Announcing Events
1975 Black Arts Festival Poster [Carolina Union of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, University Archives]
Called by 1973 Cultural Coordinator Algenon Marbley, “soul-stirring events” that “exemplify our culture through song, dance and drama,” the Black Arts Festival was an explosion of performances, workshops and lectures that featured artists not only from on campus, but throughout the United States. (Marbley, 1973)

Letter on BSM letterhead
Letter from Marbley to Chancellor Taylor [Carolina Union of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, University Archives]
The annual festival happened from 1972 to 1981, and featured performances from Black Student Movement subgroups like The Readers (now The Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre), Opeyo Dancers (now Opeyo! Dance Company) and the Black Student Movement Gospel Choir. The festival was lauded as an event where black students could come together and express themselves through performance.

The relationships and roots of Black American art in the African diaspora were consistent themes in the 1973 festival. While performance seems to be the dominant form of expression in each year’s festival, the week-long series of events also featured panel discussions and classes. The festival in 1973 included a conversation between Chapel Hill’s first black mayor, Howard Lee, and activist Owusu Saudaki (Mills, 1973). Often, the BSM reached out to communities near UNC and workshops were taught by Durham’s Ebony Dance Theatre and the Bowie State Dancers (Starr, 1979).

In 1975, students expressed concern for continuing the festival, and conversations were had about how a black student organization on a predominantly while campus could thrive in terms of funding and administrative support. The festival was put on hiatus between 1976 and 1978, during which time the organization focused on other concerns like recruitment of black faculty and students (Carolina Union Records).

Speaker Contract with Black Panther Party
1974 Contract with Black Panther Party Speakers’ Bureau [Carolina Union of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, University Archives]
Recruitment Recommendations Text
BSM Recommendations for Recruitment 1975 [Carolina Union of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, University Archives]
Distressed by the lack of black artists coming to Chapel Hill, members of the BSM worked to revive the festival (Worsley, 1979). In 1979, black film and theater legend Cicely Tyson was invited to appear at Memorial Hall. That same year, co-sponsored by the Carolina Union, the award-winning and Grammy nominated New York Community Choir performed.

In 1980, the festival saw much less of an audience outside of the 300 audience members who came to support the Freshman Bloc, a skit-based variety show. The festival continued in 1981, with Wanda Montgomery as Cultural Coordinator. (Blossom, 1981). This is seemingly the last year, because in 1982, the BSM continued to fight for funding. The Black Arts Festival was under scrutiny, funding was cut and some of the events were added to Black History Month (Black Ink, 1982).

There are some occurrences of week-long events similar to the Black Arts festival after this. In 1991, an African American culture week called “African Americans in the Arts,” sponsored by the Black Cultural Centers Special Programming Committee, featured the Opeyo! Dancers (Mankowski, 1991). In the early 1990s, African American Culture Week is still mentioned in Black Ink. The Black Student Movement and its subgroups continue to produce, sponsor and curate performances, continuing their legacy as an organization that uplifts black joy.

References:

Black Student Movement in the Carolina Union of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records #40128, University Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Blossom, Teresa (1981). “BSM Black Arts Festival Arrives Mar 18-25”. Black Ink. Retrieved from
http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/2015236558/1981-03-17/ed-1/seq-3/

Mankowski, Melissa (1991). “Opeyo! Dancers Mix Modern with Traditional Steps”. The Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved from http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn92073228/1991-09-27/ed-1/seq-5/

Marbley, Algenon. (1973). “BACF Affect Apathy”. The Black Ink. Retrieved from http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/2015236558/1973-04-01/ed-1/seq-4/

Mills, Janice. (1973). “Realm of Black Arts Explored”. The Black Ink. Retrieved from http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/2015236558/1973-04-01/ed-1/seq-4/

Starr, Mary Beth. (1979). “Notable Groups Reflect Culture in Performance”. The Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved from http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn92073228/1979-03-23/ed-1/seq-12/

Williams, Linda (1974). “’74 Festival Set” Black Ink. Retrieved from http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/2015236558/1974-03-01/ed-1/seq-1/

Worsley, Carolyn. (1979). “A Week of Arts, Entertainment.” The Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved from
http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn92073228/1979-03-23/ed-1/seq-12/

Unknown Contributor. (1982). “Choir Guilty as Charged” Black Ink. Retrieved from http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/2015236558/1982-04-29/ed-1/seq-2/

“Proving a Secret is Difficult”: Zora Neale Hurston at UNC

Image of the Zora Neale Hurston Hall plaque created by UNC MFA candidate Jeanine Tatlock.

On May 28, 2015, the UNC Board of Trustees voted to remove the name of Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate Army colonel William Saunders from a campus building and rename it “Carolina Hall.” Additionally, the Board voted to place a 16-year moratorium on renaming campus buildings. The removal of Saunders’ name came after decades of work by student activists on campus, particularly the collaborative efforts of student organizations (the Black Student Movement, Real Silent Sam Coalition, and the Campus Y) in 2014.

Activists had urged the administration to rename the building for renowned black anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. They cited a belief that Hurston attended UNC as a “secret student” in 1940, more than a decade before the first African American students were admitted to Carolina.

Even after the Trustees’ decision, student activists continued to celebrate Hurston’s life and call for a new name for Carolina Hall. In the fall of 2015, student activists held an “opening ceremony” for Hurston Hall. A statement by the Real Silent Sam coalition acknowledged the importance of naming the building for Hurston: “We named this building after Zora Neale Hurston precisely because racist and sexist admissions policies excluded her and other Black women from UNC.”

In March 2017, UNC MFA candidate Jeanine Tatlock added an additional plaque to the building, naming it Zora Neale Hurston Hall and acknowledging that “against all odds and despite a system that did everything in its power to keep [Hurston] from attending college she went on to become one of America’s most celebrated authors.”

From what we can tell, the Board of Trustees never collectively addressed the idea of renaming Saunders Hall for Zora Neale Hurston. However, in a letter to the Daily Tar Heel editor in 2017, UNC Trustee Alston Gardner argued that students never formally proposed the name change from Saunders to Hurston. Responding to the suggestion, Gardner wrote, “of course, proving a secret is difficult, so I applied a reasonableness test and came up short.” Many details of Zora Neale Hurston’s connection to Carolina are unclear, but the question of whether or not she was really a secret student here before UNC integrated in 1951 still remains on many of our minds. After an extensive search of resources in the Wilson Special Collections Library (and some from the University of Kansas’ Kenneth Spencer Research Library) we’ve established the following:

According to Cecelia Moore’s The South as a Folk Play: The Carolina Playmakers, Regional Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, in 1934, Zora Neale Hurston met playwright and UNC professor Paul Green and Carolina Playmakers founder Frederick Koch at the National Folk Festival in St. Louis, Missouri (p. 167). Recruited by Koch, Zora Neale Hurston came to North Carolina in 1939 to assume a theater teaching position at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham (now North Carolina Central University)(Moore, p. 154).

Daily Tar Heel, 7 October 1939.
Daily Tar Heel, 7 October 1939, describing Hurston’s presentation at the Carolina Dramatic Association.

Hurston is now best known for her folktales and novels telling black stories, but in the 1930s she was invested in writing and producing folk plays: plays that highlighted everyday black life. On October 7, 1939, Hurston spoke at the fall meeting of the Carolina Dramatic Association, a statewide organization of theater directors and educators. The group met in Playmakers Theater on UNC’s campus. The following day, the Daily Tar Heel quoted her as telling the group, “Our drama must be like us, or it doesn’t exist.” She wanted to create theater that better exhibited the fullness of black life. Green, drawing from the legacy of the Carolina Playmakers under Frederick Koch, was similarly interested in writing folk plays.  He wrote and produced many works and won a Pulitzer Prize in May 1927 for the play In Abraham’s Bosom

Daily Tar Heel article describing the Sunday night Radio Writing and Production course, lists Zora Neale Hurston among other students, March 30, 1940. 

In the spring semester of 1940, Hurston joined Paul Green’s small theater group. The March 30, 1940 issue of the Daily Tar Heel lists Zora Neale Hurston among the students in Green’s “Radio Writing and Production” course, meeting Sunday nights in Caldwell Hall. A class of that name does not appear in the catalog for the 1939-1940 academic year, suggesting that it may not have been officially offered through the University. Several of the class participants, including Hurston, were not enrolled at UNC at the time. There is also conflicting information about where they met: Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway writes in Zora Neale Hurston: a Literary Biography that they moved to Green’s home due to a complaint from a white student (p. 255), while Laurence G. Avery in A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green, 1916-1981 says the meetings were always at Green’s house (p. 312).  In a 1971 interview with Robert Hemenway, Paul Green said they often had to work “sort of specially separate from the class,” and she would come to his house quite often.

Although Paul Green was the instructor for the course, his relationship with Hurston appeared to be more collaborative. In one energetic letter, Hurston writes to Green imploring him to send someone to record a spiritual she found at a black church in South Carolina. The spiritual could help them in the writing of their play, with the working title John De Conqueror. In the letter, she says, “Now, don’t sit there Paul Green, just thinking! Do something!” (p. 312). She feared a fellow student would record the spirituals and sell them before they could use it in their work. Unfortunately, the recordings weren’t made, and John De Conqueror was never finished.   

Daily Tar Heel article describing the Sunday night Radio Writing and Production course, lists Zora Neale Hurston among other students, March 30, 1940.

Despite not being officially recognized as a student, the spirit of the plaque students placed on Carolina Hall two years ago is still represented in Zora Neale Hurston’s abundant life as a black scholar. Her work initially received mixed reviews, but by the time she arrived in North Carolina, she had already earned a bachelors degree from Barnard College in 1928 and published several noteworthy books—including one of her most popular works, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Paul Green said in that 1971 interview that he remembered Hurston driving around campus in her “little red sports car” with a “jaunty little tam o shanter” on her head. Students would “jeer” as she drove by. On one occasion, he recalled, even the professors mocked her — she responded by calling “Hi, freshmen! Hi, freshmen!” It seems she never backed down from a challenge.

As Gardner noted, “proving a secret” is a challenge, and one archivists face often. Reference archivists frequently receive questions about aspects of campus history that, for many reasons, went undocumented or unpreserved. It is a struggle to find answers and adequate evidence to support them. It all depends on what has been collected and preserved. When we find these gaps in the historical record, it is frustrating but encourages us to think more deeply about what we’re collecting now and its uses in the future. In the case of Zora Neale Hurston at UNC and many parts of university history that we take extra time to research, we relish in the small crumbs we have but find ourselves hungry for more information.

Learn More: “Saunders Hall” essay in Reclaiming the University of the People: Racial Justice Movements at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Charlotte Fryar, 2019.

Sources:

Carolina Hall History

The Daily Tar Heel

Frederick H. Koch Papers, 1893-1979.

Letter to the Editor of the Daily Tar Heel

Paul Green Interview, 1971, Personal Papers of Robert E. Hemenway, PP 487, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

Paul Green Papers, 1880-2009

The South as a Folk Play: The Carolina Playmakers, Regional Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939 [in the Carolina Digital Repository]

A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green, 1916-1981

UNC T-Shirt Archive

University Archives Web Archives

William Laurence Saunders Papers, 1712-1907.

Zora Neale Hurston: a Literary Biography

On This Day in 1968: Three In the Attic Released

An illustration featuring representations of three women, an attic roof, and a man in a birdcage. Includes the text "3 in the Attic" and information about the film.
A poster for the 1968 film “Three in the Attic,” which was filmed in part on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.

The farcical drama Three in the Attic was released on this day in 1968. The film is set at a fictional New England college, but was filmed primarily at and around UNC. The plot centers on one student, Paxton, who begins dating three girls at a neighboring school. Things take a turn for the worse when they discover his infidelity. Together they decide to lock him in an attic and torture him with their love.

When producers from American Film International approached UNC about using parts of the UNC campus for their new movie, Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson appointed Professor William Hardy of UNC’s Radio,Television, and Motion Picture Department to the task of reading the script and deciding whether or not the film was appropriate to be filmed at UNC.

Photograph courtesy of the Daily Tarheel

Hardy approved the script, writing to the chancellor that he only found one scene in particular, to be “considered marginal in taste.” In the same letter, he remarks that he is aware that there were other scenes with “sexual overtones” in the script, but it did not contain “homosexuality, any other perversion, or violence.” With this nod of approval and less than subtle homophobia, the filming commenced.

The film hit some roadblocks in the press, written off as a pornographic film or “skin flick”when a reporter at the Greensboro Daily News was denied entry to the set of the film. A graduate student who was on set that day informed the reporter that he saw nude actors walking by and that half of the crew was being kept out for some of the scenes being filmed that day. The resulting article, claiming they were filming a “skin flick” on UNC’s campus, sparked some debate and controversy. Letters poured into the chancellor and vice chancellor’s offices expressing concern for the integrity of the university. But by this time, the scenes being filmed at UNC were nearly done. As the filming in Chapel Hill came to a close, the director of the film, Richard Wilson, penned a letter apologizing for the “flurry of adverse publicity” the university was receiving, assuring the chancellor that the film was nothing more than a “social satire” and not a “skin flick” as the local news outlets were reporting.

When the film came out, it was revealed that it was not pornographic, but did include scenes with partial nudity and adult themes, Professor Hardy wrote again to Chancellor Sitterson. He apologized for the terrible turn of events claiming the script he read “at the outset of the matter gave promise of something entirely different and certainly better than the final result.”

The negative attention the university received in relation to the film died down shortly after the release. Since the film came out, it has had a less than stellar reputation with one article calling the film “overpriced.” However, you might still want to watch it just to see if you recognize some of your favorite spots on and around campus.

If you watch Three in the Attic you might recognize some of these notable locations on campus and nearby:

  • The ATO house
  • Old Carrboro Railroad Station
  • Swain Hall
  • 115 Battle Lane
  • Durham Allied Arts

 

Resources:

The Daily Tar Heel, available online via DigitalNC.org.

Office of Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Joseph Carlyle Sitterson Records, 1966-1972 (#40022)

New Collection: Danny Bell Photographs

We have just opened a new collection for research: photographs from Danny Bell. Bell has been at the heart of American Indian life at UNC since the late 1980s. He was one of the founders of the American Indian Studies program and has worked closely with the Carolina Indian Circle. Bell’s photos document performances, lectures, and classes, and include many images of Carolina Indian Circle events.

The photos now available for use in Wilson Library.

Carolina Indian Circle performance and beading workshop, ca. 1996-1997. Photo by Danny Bell.
Carolina Indian Circle performance and beading workshop, ca. 1996-1997. Photo by Danny Bell.

New Collection: Fred Brooks Papers

Fred Brooks at the dedication of the Brooks Computer Science Building in 2008.
Fred Brooks at the dedication of the Brooks Computer Science Building in 2008. Photo by UNC News Services.

We are pleased to announce the availability of a new collection: the Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. Papers. This collection documents the work of Fred Brooks, the pioneer computer scientist and founder of UNC’s Department of Computer Science. The UNC Computer Science building, dedicated in 2008, is named for Brooks.

The collection includes materials about the Department of Computer Science, the development of the Triangle Universities Computing Center (an early collaboration between Duke and UNC), and records of Brooks’s research and writing, including the manuscript of his influential book The Mythical Man-Month.

The Brooks Papers are open and available for research in Wilson Library.

Image source: News Services of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (#40139). Digital Folder DF-40139/0382, https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/record/uuid:a80564ce-18dc-487b-ad64-3519cc0879ae