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

Two plaques on top of each top One states Zora Neal Hurston Hall while the other has Carolina Hall and the year 2015.
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.
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, continued.
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

 

The Rise and Fall of Apple Chill

The Apple Chill festival began in Chapel Hill in 1972, a time when the city was (as the 1972 UNC yearbook said) “a town of small, even shops interrupted by one higher roof with the unmistakable air of village compactness and tradition.”

Springtime would bring the festivities to a Franklin Street closed to traffic, and people from far and wide would join the revelry. The large street fair brought thousands of people into Chapel Hill each year and provided exposure for artists and musicians of all types. A group that became a mainstay of the celebration was the Apple Chill Cloggers, a folk dance troupe that has performed in 14 countries since their first festival appearance in 1975.

The first Apple Chill festival page from the 1972 edition of the Yackety Yack.

As the years flew by Apple Chill began to change and three major issues began to make themselves clear: the astronomical cost, the violence, and the unbelievably bad traffic. The 2004 celebration cost the town $43,593. In 2005 the cost had doubled: the town spent $87,233 for police and other costs.

Apple Chill, for all its charm, had problems more serious than merely draining the treasury (DTH 4/15/05). Rising crime resulted in an increased police presence as the years drifted by: in 1993 there was a shootout after the festival, in 2003 alone 12 fights were reported, and two people were injured in a stabbing at the Local 506 in 2004.

Apple Chill 1979. [Yackety Yack]
All good things must come to an end, and the increasingly violent events caught up with the festival. In 2006 Chapel Hill chilled for the final time. Around 30,000 people (and 235 police officers) attended that year, unaware that they would be the final attendees to celebrate in Chapel Hill proper. That year officers arrested 11 people and issued 87 traffic citations, but that was only the beginning of the troubles. At an unsanctioned event called “After Chill,” the fun and games finally ended as the violence reached a head: three people were shot.

Traffic was another problem of Apple Chill; roads were congested so badly that not even ambulances could navigate. The News and Observer reported on one particularly shocking 2006 incident (N&O 4/25/06):

One of the shooting victims had to be taken from Franklin Street to UNC Hospitals on a John Deere Gator, which is like an all-terrain vehicle with a cab on the back that was retrofitted to hold a gurney.

Apple Chill 1990. [Yackety Yack]
The death of Apple Chill, though tragic, was also a reflection of Chapel Hill’s evolving culture. It was no longer a small town, and Mayor Kevin Foy was forced to acknowledge that fact even when facing resistance from many Chapel Hill locals. “The town is not the same as it was 35 years ago; as the town grows, as the region grows, we have to be willing to change.”

Despite being ousted from Chapel Hill, Apple Chill events can still be found hosted in other cities (though the Spoonerism of a name makes a bit less sense as a result). From 2007 until 2010 the festival was held in Roxboro, NC. Since 2011 it has been held in Fayetteville.

 

References:

Apple Chill Cloggers

“Chapel Hill Town Council Passes Resolution To End Street Fair”

“Chapel Hill Votes to Kill Apple Chill”

“Police: Chapel Hill Festival Shootings Probably Gang-Related”

The Daily Tar Heel (articles cited above)

The Yackety Yack

UNC Students Study Nike, 1998

Daily Tar Heel clipping with headline, "Nike CEO Phil Knight makes surprise visit to labor seminar."
Daily Tar Heel, 29 April 1998.

In the mid 1990s, Nike and other apparel companies drew criticism for labor practices in overseas factories they owned or used. UNC students and faculty were at the heart of the debate in the spring of 1998 when an entire class looked at Nike and its role in the global economy.

UNC began its relationship with Nike in 1993, when it signed its first agreement with the company to provide shoes and other athletic apparel for Carolina athletes and coaches. It was a new era for the basketball team in particular, which had worn Converse shoes since the 1960s.

When the University began negotiating a renewal of the contract a few years later, students began to bring up concerns about Nike’s labor practices. In the summer of 1997, student Marion Traub Warner started the Nike Awareness Campaign to educate other students about concerns over Nike’s labor practices. This was not just a UNC issue. Other universities with apparel deals with Nike, including Michigan, Ohio State, and the University of California, collaborated with an independent study of working conditions in factories used by Nike. In the fall of 1997, business students at Dartmouth released a study of pay rates at factories in Indonesia and Vietnam. Workers were found to be poorly paid and subject to dangerous environmental conditions.

Inspired by UNC student interest and an opportunity to study and learn from a current, global issue, UNC faculty members Richard Andrews, Nick Didow, and James Peacock offered a class in the Spring semester 1998 entitled “Economics, Ethics, and Impacts of the Global Economy: The Nike Example.”

The course drew national media attention, including a mention on ESPN. At the end of the semester, the faculty arranged for a staff member from Nike to be present for the students’ final presentations, which included recommendations for the company. They were all surprised when the company representative turned out to be Nike CEO Phil Knight. Nike took steps to address labor concerns in its factories and the University continued to renew its apparel contracts with Nike.

This topic and the class are covered at length in a new collection in the University Archives. The collection includes materials gathered and saved by Dr. Raymond (“Pete”) Andrews. It is a terrific resource for anyone interested in studying labor practices of apparel companies in the 1990s and the ways that college students at UNC and around the country helped to engage and possibly influence the practices of a major international corporation.

UNC faculty and students with Nike CEO Phil Knight (third from left), 1998. From the Richard Andrews Collection on The Nike Class, UNC University Archives.

Otelia Connor: UNC’s Guardian of Good Manners

Otelia Connor, from the Daily Tar Heel, 9 March 1963.
Otelia Connor, from the Daily Tar Heel, 9 March 1963.

Before there were Pit preachers, there was Mrs. Otelia Connor, an elderly Southern woman who patrolled the manners of Carolina students in the 1960s.  Instead of a Bible, she carried an umbrella to thwack those who ran afoul of her rules.  Though she reportedly only used the umbrella once, the threat of her wrath was enough to keep many in line—at least in her presence.  Connor was known as a campus gadfly, a character whose outsized personality kept her on the pages of The Daily Tar Heel.  Her mission and popularity led Time magazine to write a feature in which they coined the term “Oteliaquette” to describe her unique take on campus etiquette.  She later appeared on other media outlets, including The Mike Douglas Show and various radio programs.  Her moment in the national spotlight faded, though she continued to contribute to campus life until her death in 1969.

Otelia Cunningham Connor, a widow from an illustrious North Carolina family, originally came to Chapel Hill for her son’s graduation from law school in 1957.  She fell in love with Carolina, and promptly moved to a modest apartment near campus.  Though the mother of two grown children, Otelia adopted the entire student body as her children and set about improving their manners from her base in Lenoir Hall.  Her rules ranged from common demonstrations of respect—such as holding the door for older people—to specific prohibitions against everything from chewing gum to bumping the back of her chair.  In general, she advocated friendly and thoughtful behavior as hallmarks of a proper upbringing and education.  She wrote of her calling, “The world expects good manners of a college graduate.  When I correct the young people it is because I think too much of them to see them go out into the world without the rudiments of good manners . . . . Most young people appreciate someone taking the trouble to correct their thoughtlessness.” Otelia Connor, “Manners Minder,” DTH (11 April 1962, pg. 2)

Dean of Students Charles Henderson described Otelia as an “anthropological treasure . . . a throwback to those lost days when manners counted for something, and when elderly ladies thought it their duty to preserve them.”  Students were more divided on her mission and methods.  Some students appreciated her contributions, as Stanley Cameron wrote to the DTH, “She is truly a pearl.  Carolina would not be the same without her.  Only a mature, reserved, detached woman like herself could display such keen insight in the life of this university.” Stanley Cameron, “Wants More Otelia, Wellman,” DTH (15 February 1963, pg. 3).  Others were more dubious, “Otelia Connor writes such stinging comments on the social manners of our times that she has been suspected of being the pseudonym of a crotchety editor whose pen has an acute case of acid hemophilia.” Alan K. Whiteleather, “The Pen’s Poison, But Manners Are the Motive: ‘Otelia’—It’s No Pseudonym,” DTH (13 February 1963, pg. 1).  Indeed, DTH editors had to reassure incredulous students that Otelia was indeed “real” on multiple occasions.

As the self-appointed guardian of manners, Otelia was often viewed as a prude.  The 1963 April Fool’s issue of the DTH (March 31, 1963) featured Otelia as a member of an imaginary “Human Relations Committee” to enforce the administration’s abolishment of sex.  Indeed, Otelia argued against pre-marital sex during a Di-Phi debate.  Otelia was also positively scandalized by a dance called the Thunderbird, citing its resemblance to “an orgy” and expressed concern that a male student might “shake his backsides right off,” continuing, “please excuse me from this bottom-shaking business.  Whatever it is, it is not a dance and shouldn’t be classified as a dance.” Otelia Connor, “From Otelia,” DTH (11 July 1963, pg. 4).

Despite her traditional ideas about sex and dancing, Otelia was more progressive regarding dissent.  As she wrote in a rare political letter to the editor, “When this country ever reaches the point where it is afraid of new ideas and afraid to let people express themselves in open and free debate, then democracy will already be dead, and waiting to be buried by the communist world.” Otelia Connor, “More Afraid Of J Birchers,” DTH (11 December 1962, pg. 2).  This is not to say that she embraced an activist worldview.  Although she claimed to support civil rights for African Americans, she objected to continuing demonstrations by the Civil Rights movement, “I think it would be the part of wisdom to consolidate the many gains they have made recently, and give the extreme segregationists a chance to accommodate themselves to the changes which have come about.”  Otelia Connor, “From Otelia On Civil Rights,” DTH (1 August 1963, pg. 5).

By the end of her life, Connor had recanted some of her earlier strictures regarding dancing, male-female relationships, and—in her final letter—long hair on men.  In that last article, she decried her earlier belief “that everybody should conform to the status quo, and that there should never be any changes.”  After exhorting men with long locks to keep their hair clean, she offered words of wisdom for all generations, “Let us all, students and adults, grow into maturity, and be ready to accept the next period of change around the corner.” Otelia Connor, “Time For Change,” DTH (31 July 1969, pg. 6).

Archival Photo Mystery: Buncombe County Military Recruits, 1916-1917

During a recent renovation project at Wilson Library, we came across a couple of photographic postcards that had been set aside.  Based on a note left with the photographs, it appeared that the items had probably been separated from the University Papers; however, when we tried to find corresponding folders or items in the collection, we were unsuccessful.  Thus began our most recent processing mystery.

The backs of the postcards are blank, which leads us to believe that they were enclosed with a letter, likely sent to President Edward Kidder Graham in 1917.  The photos are dated in 1916 and 1917 and show how two men have gained weight over the course of several months, before-and-after style.

We were of course curious about who these two men were and why their photos were sent to President Graham.  Based on UNC records, it doesn’t look like either White or Bryson were ever students here, but after some searching, we did learn a few things.

After looking through census and military records, we found a little information about the first man — Jobe White. He was from Weaverville, N.C., born in February 1897 to Malissa White, and he had two brothers — Bradshaw and Hardy.  We were less successful in discovering the identity of the second man.  The writing on the postcard appears to show just initials and surname — W.C. Bryson  — and we can guess that he was also from Buncombe County.  While we did find records that gave us pause and made us wonder whether this was the same man, none contained enough information for us to make a confident match.

What we can say is this: both men were part of the First North Carolina Infantry in 1916 and 1917. They were both from Buncombe County.  And they both gained a significant amount of weight over the course of five months of military training. (White gained 30 lbs. and Bryson gained 50.)

Based on the years and regiment, they were probably sent to Texas as part of the Mexican Border Campaign, also known as Pershing’s Punitive Expedition or the Pancho Villa Expedition. The First Regiment mustered at Camp Glenn, in Morehead City, during the first week of August 1916, arrived in El Paso in September 1916, and returned to North Carolina in early February 1917.

While we were able to find out all this just using the captions on both photographs, where they came from is still a mystery.  Were they sent to President Graham enclosed with a letter? Why were they sent to him? Who sent them?  If these men were never UNC students, how were they connected to the University? If you have any ideas, please let us know in the comments on this post or get in touch at archives@unc.edu.

 

For further reading:

State Archives of North Carolina, First North Carolina Infantry Regiment Panoramic Photograph. http://ead.archives.ncdcr.gov/AV_7005_First_North_Carolina_In_.html

National Archives, The United States Armed Forces and the Mexican Punitive Expedition: Part 1. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/fall/mexican-punitive-expedition-1.html

Slave Labor and South Building

South Building, often called “Main Building” in early university records, was one of the first buildings constructed on campus. Work began around 1798.[1] It is currently the central administration building on campus, housing the Office of the Chancellor, the Executive Vice Chancellor, and Provost. South Building is located in the heart of the original campus where the first structures built by white and black workers are located, including Old East, Old West, Gerrard Hall, the Steward’s Hall, Person Hall, and Smith Hall. At least 35 known enslaved laborers, who were skilled brick-masons, carpenters, and artisans, and who likewise provided labor such as transportation of materials, contributed extensively to the construction of South Building and its subsequent repairs.

Gaps remain in the archival sources and historical records regarding enslaved peoples’ involvement in the original construction of structures such as South Building. University financial records list payments made to Samuel Hopkins in 1798 for his supervision of work on “Main Building,” and to Major Pleasant Henderson for procuring roofing shells and taking over the duties as superintendent in 1799. These records emphasize the involvement of white men, however, and provide little detail on the construction process. It was not until the 1820s and 1837 when extensive repairs and additions were made to South that enslaved workers were mentioned by name and with some degree of specificity regarding the nature of their labor.[2] There is a mention of “7 days labor of a hand moving” the steel and iron; no names are provided, however, for the enslaved men who contributed to the initial construction on South Building.[3]

Various issues, including the temporary loss of funds from escheated property (including enslaved people) hindered the building’s completion until 1814.[4] South Building stood as one and a half roofless stories from 1801 and 1811.[5] Trustees began raising funds for the university through donations, called subscriptions, in 1803. President Joseph Caldwell himself traveled throughout North Carolina in 1809 and 1811 collecting funds from elite North Carolinians. Construction on South Building resumed in 1811 once enough subscriptions were collected. Contractor John Close oversaw the completion of South Building in 1814, but the records do not indicate whether he used enslaved labor during construction.[6]

The Board of Trustees and the Building Committee hired architect William Nichols in 1822 to divide the Prayer Hall in South Building into two stories. Over the course of several years, enslaved laborers added a ceiling, and converted existing rooms into a chemical laboratory, and a library and lecture room.[7] From 1824 to 1826, Nichols and his laborers, which included several dozen enslaved men hired out from trustees and other local slave owners, worked to remove the leaky cupola, make the roof on South Building “continuous,” and to build a belfry.[8] Clayton, Daniel, Peter, Sam, Toney, and Will quarried rock, made repairs, and performed carpenter and sawyer work on multiple buildings in addition to South Building, including Old East, Old West, and Steward’s Hall under Nichols’ supervision.[9]

Thomas Waitt and his workers completed covering the roof of South Building in tin in 1837. A bill to the trustees listed the full names and wages of white workers, and listed the names of enslaved plasterers and masons Stewart, Chester, Peter, Calvin, Evans, laborers Lewis, Tom, Redin, Abraham, Jordan, and unspecified labor performed by unnamed hands.[10] Isaac, Jorge, Lewis, Luke, Ransom, and Sam were listed on a bill detailing that they had labored on South Building’s cupola and belfry, along with putting a new roof and portico on Gerrard Hall.[11]

No further repairs were commissioned for South Building until 1860. Architect and builder Thomas Coates and his laborers began construction on a new cupola after the first burned down in 1856.[12] However, no records have been found which detail who the laborers involved in this project were.

While William Nichols compiled extensive records which documented enslaved workers’ various duties and skills, other builders either kept far fewer records of their efforts, or such records were lost or destroyed.[13] What records do exist, however, prove the necessity of enslaved people to the university’s existence, their centrality in maintaining the university’s functions, and that the funds provided for construction, repairs, and additions to South Building and others came from slaveholders whose profits were made through the efforts of enslaved people.

[1] Board of Trustees for the University of North Carolina Records, 1789-1932, #40001, Series 1, Minutes 1789-1932, Oversize Volume SV-40001/3, 7/11/1799, 20-22.

[2] University of North Carolina Papers, 1757-1935, #40005, Series 1, Folder 79, 2/1/1823; Folder 82, 7/3/1823; Folder 86, 3/1/1824; Folder 101, 5/15/1826; Folder 103, 8/9/1826; Folder 104, 9/1/1826;

[3] Ibid., 70.

[4] “South Building,” UNC University Library, 2005, http://docsouth.unc.edu/global/getBio.html?type=place&id=name0001062&name=South%20Building; Kemp Plummer Battle, An Address on the History of the Buildings of the University of North Carolina (Greensboro: Thomas, Reece & Co., Printers, 1883), 11, 134.

[5] Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, Volume I: From its Beginning to the Death of President Swain, 1789-1868, (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1907), 126-127.

[6] Battle, An Address, 11, 134.

[7] Battle, History of the University, 281-282; Archibald Henderson, “Chapter 9: Old West and The New Chapel; President Polk’s Visit,” The Campus of the First State University, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949), 85.

[8] Battle, History, 282.

[9] Folder 79, 2/1/1823; Folder 82, 6/4/1823; Folder 86, 3/1/1824; Folder 101, 5/15/1826; Folder 104, 9/1/1826.

[10] “Thomas A. Waitt’s bill for labour,” UNC Libraries, last modified 2005, https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/items/show/3360.

[11] UNC Papers, Series 1, Folder 101, 5/15/1826.

[12] Battle, History of the University, 653.

[13] Battle, An Address, 134.

The Full List of Names of the Enslaved Workers Who Built the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As part of ongoing efforts to reckon with its past, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently joined several dozen universities and colleges in becoming a member of Universities Studying Slavery (USS). This “multi-institutional collaboration” aims to facilitate an environment of mutual support in order for these institutions to “address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities as well as the complicated legacies of slavery in modern American society.”

Each of these institutions has employees and students who have begun extensive research into universities’ founders’, employees’, trustees’, donors’, and students’ exploitation of enslaved peoples’ labor in order to to build, maintain, and serve the needs of higher learning in the United States. Undergraduates in Dr. James Leloudis’ HIST 398 course, entitled “Slavery and the University,” and graduate student research assistants conducted extensive research into the university’s use of enslaved labor and its role in the slave trade. In my capacity as a graduate research assistant for the History Task Force during the Spring 2018 semester, I expanded upon, collated, and formalized this research into a list of the names of enslaved people who have thus far been identified as workers and builders on and around the campus. This list includes the names of identified enslaved people, as well as information on their duties and the years in which they worked on campus.

In order to aid further research into these people and their lives, a more complete list is available below, which includes the names of identified enslaved people’s owners, and the sources in which enslaved people’s names were found. The aim is to provide such information to acknowledge and honor the previously unnamed enslaved people who literally built the university; to facilitate better understandings of the contexts within which the university operated; to promote further interest and research into the university’s past and its involvement with slavery; and to begin the process of reconciling the university’s past with its present.

More information on enslaved people not currently included in these lists will continue to be published as researchers, including undergraduate and graduate students, archivists, genealogists, and historians continue their work. Several employees, trustees, and presidents of the university provided their enslaved workers as hired labor in currently unknown capacities; attorneys throughout the state of North Carolina sold escheated enslaved people to fund the university’s operations; and Chapel Hill townspeople boarded enslaved people hired out to work on the campus.

In order to facilitate further research, the full spreadsheet of known enslaved laborers, along with associated owners and citations to relevant archival sources is available below. Click the link to download a copy of the Excel file.

Known Enslaved Workers at Chapel Hill