Slave Labor and Old East

Building Old East, 1793-1795

On October 12, 1793, construction began on Old East, UNC’s first building and the first public university building in the United States. Slave labor was likely used for the construction of Old East, and used extensively in subsequent repairs and expansion.

The Building Committee made a contract with a white man named James Patterson, a university land donor and slaveholder, to oversee construction of Old East along with two other men serving as undertakers, George Lucas and Patrick St. Lawrence.[1] The building was completed in 1795, but repairs and additions to the building took place throughout the antebellum period.

One indication that enslaved workers worked on Old East’s initial construction comes from a letter written by Patterson in 1795. Patterson mentioned that several of his “own slaves” had painted the roof of Old East that same year, a task he lamented for its dangers and the risk to the slaves’ lives. In subsequent maintenance, repairs, and construction from 1804 onward, many enslaved men worked as carpenters, bricklayers, and plasterers on Old East. Most of them appear to have been owned by slaveholders affiliated with the university or hired from the surrounding area of Orange and Chatham counties.

The records created by free whites such as Patterson can often be frustratingly limited in detail regarding the enslaved black people tasked with the majority of construction. Whites proved primarily concerned with documenting and discussing enslaved people in terms of their economic value, meaning their monetary worth and productive output as unpaid laborers. Indeed, Patterson’s concern for his slaves’ safety stemmed largely from his concerns over losing “a valuable servant.”[2] He never mentioned any of his slaves by name, and while three slaves are tallied in the 1790 census as part of Patterson’s household, no one but Patterson himself was identified by name.

Expanding Old East, 1822

In 1822, a third story was added to Old East under the supervision of designer and builder William Nichols and with the significant aid of enslaved workers. Some of the enslaved men who repaired Old East appear as first names tallied on bills so that their white owners could receive compensation for their labors. Bob and Henry repaired Old East’s foundation and put in stone window sills, while Nelson and Allman worked on the gable ends and chimneys; “Masons Tony” repaired holes in the walls and worked on the roof, while Luke, Isaac, Jonathan, and Caplen all assisted carpenters and performed various general labor tasks.[3] John C. White, who assisted William Nichols with overseeing the repairs and the workmen, presented a bill totaling the enslaved men’s labor at about $395, equivalent to roughly $7,935.35 today. He specified that the payment was “to be paid their several owners,” indicating the continued practice of hiring slaves from the surrounding area.[4] Beyond their first names and costs of their labor, however, it is difficult to parse out much about these enslaved men as individual people.

Bills and receipts for the “boarding of hands” during this time appears to indicate that various townspeople housed white contractors’ and professionals’ slaves for extended periods of time to work on the university buildings.[5] If this was the case, it would mean that these workers were potentially separated from their families and communities for extended periods of time filled with difficult and grueling work. The unabated nature of such labor appears to have taken a toll on these men, several of whom appear on records from 1823 to 1826. A receipt from 1824 indicates that enslaved workers owned by Colonel William Polk and Judge Frederick Nash, both trustees of the university, worked on Old East and several other buildings on campus when normally they would be resting.[6] From November 1823 to January 1824, enslaved workmen Phillips, Daniel, Will, Sam, and Jacob conducted overtime work on “Holy days,” usually the only days which enslaved people received respites from their dawn to dusk labor, as well as “night work.”[7]  Phillips, Jacob, and Sam were noted as carpenters, and likely performed more skilled work, while Will and Daniel worked as sawyers to cut the wood. Isaac and Allen, whose owner is unknown, also worked as sawyers for the Old East repairs. Sterling and Ned also worked on Old East in some capacity, though the records do not clarify what they both did. Nimrod Ragsdale, a white brick maker who provided tens of thousands of bricks for the third story addition to Old East, as well as the construction of Old West, also employed his slaves Dick and Ned Peek to assist him in making and placing the bricks, and it is likely they too conducted work on Old East.[8]

As valuable laborers put to difficult and sometimes dangerous work, enslaved workers at the university appear to have occasionally received some medical treatment. In September 1823, William Nichols received a bill from “Cave” Yancey, potentially a physician by the name of Charles Yancey who lived in Orange County and worked in some capacity near or at the university. The bill listed several visits Yancey made to several named and unnamed enslaved workers, including Peter and Anderson. Throughout 1823, Yancey had administered unspecified medicines, as well as an emetic, treated “bleeding,” and even spent “24 hours attendance” at the side of one worker. In all, the cost was $16.25 to keep enslaved workers sound and functional.[9]

In 1825, in the midst of work on Old East and other university buildings, a man by the name of Joseph Hawkins placed an advertisement in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser offering a $50 reward for the capture and return of an unnamed runaway slave. Hawkins noted that the “cut-finger cad” had been hired “for most of the last two years” to William Nichols and worked at Chapel Hill. The man had likely absconded in order to find his wife, and carried with him distinct clothes and a dagger and pistol, rendering him potentially dangerous.[10] There is no way of knowing what ultimately caused the enslaved man to run away from his position as a hired hand, but perhaps an onerous schedule and the nature of construction work took a toll the man was no longer willing to bear. Perhaps he had been planning to escape for years and finally had an opportunity and the means to do so.

Expanding Old East, 1844-1845

The roof to Old East was repaired and covered with fireproof material in 1842, but this work was largely undocumented. In 1844, the Building Committee hired architect Alexander J. Davis and builders Isaac J. Collier and Kendall Waitt to lengthen both Old East and Old West.[11] The addition and repairs to Old East cost $9,454, or about $301,102.50 today.[12] Collier and Waitt’s contract specified that they were to provide the necessary materials and workers, called “chattels,” for which the white builders would ultimately be compensated.[13] Two highly skilled enslaved laborers, brothers Albert and Osborne, were hired to cover the new additions of Old East and Old West in plaster in 1845.[14] The brothers belonged to Dabney Cosby, himself a builder and brick mason who occasionally worked with Thomas Waitt, likely a relative of Kendall Waitt’s. Cosby owned at least 19 slaves according to the 1840 census, making him a wealthy man. According to Cosby, of the two brothers it was Albert upon whom the builders could “rely” because he performed “firstrate work, his Plaistering and roughcasting here has preference to any done in this part of the state.”[15] Albert’s skills as a plasterer earned him praise and specific mentions in Cobsy’s correspondence, emphasizing the particular importance whites ascribed to enslaved labor.

No other major repairs appear to have been made to Old East during the antebellum era. As the oldest structure on campus, Old East stands as a reminder of the university’s various roles in United States history. Original pieces of Old East, including its cornerstone, remain in the building today. It is thus worth considering the fact that the work conducted by enslaved people continues to shape and impact the university and its students. Enslaved people were fundamental to the creation of the University of North Carolina’s campus.[16]


[1] Battle, 46; OVCFB Records 40095 Series 4.1 Historical Financial Records, 1789 – 1919, Oversize Volume 5 Journal of the University of North Carolina, 1789-1859, p. 5

[2] University of North Carolina Papers, 1757-1935 (#40005), Series 1, Folder 8, James Patterson’s Request for Payment, August 18 1795,

[3] Perhaps one of the masons owned Tony, hence the moniker. Ibid, Folder #79, John C. White’s Bill for Labor of Negro Workmen, [1824],

[4] Ibid; “$395 in 1804 → 2018 | Inflation Calculator.” FinanceRef Inflation Calculator, Alioth Finance, 1 Feb. 2018,

[5] University of North Carolina Papers, Series #1, Folder #79, To The University of N Carolina, By John [Thomas], For H Thomson, January 1823;  Folder #79, Of John [Beard], 7th February 1824; Folder #81, To Mrs. Mitchell, May 3 1823; To Magie Henderson, May 29 1823″; Folder #82, Trustees of University to Captain William Nichols for Bills, June 4 1823; To Captain Robert Anderson, From Chapel Hill, July 3 1823; Folder #83, Trio of letters by [Unclear], November 1823; Salley Mitchel, November 15 1823; Folder #84, Disbursements, 1823.

[6] Folder #86, Trustees of University from November 1 $23 up to the 1 of Jan 1, 1824; Building Committee of the University of North Carolina, March 1 1824; Folder #79, Labour of negroes on new building to 1st of Feby, 1823; Folder #104, Account of Money Owed William Nichols for Labor and Materials, September 1, 1826.

[7] Folder #79, Labour of negroes on new building to 1st of Feby, 1823.

[8] Folder #84, William Nichols to John Haywood, November 1823; Folder #85, To Nimrod Ragsdale for 33,279 bricks for old colege…; 66 days work of Dick on the Brick work…75 days work of Ned Peek.

[9] Folder #83, William Nichols by Jno Barr to Cave Yancey, Dr, Sept 15, 1823.

[10] Joseph Hawkins, “$50 Reward For Cut-Finger Cad,” Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser (NC), Jan 30, 1825,

[11] University of North Carolina Papers, Letter from Alexander J. Davis to David L. Swain, April 17, 1844,

[12] Ibid, List of Building Specifications and Costs, Compiled by Alexander J. Davis for David L. Swain, [1844?],; $9,454 in 1844 → 2018 | Inflation Calculator.” FinanceRef Inflation Calculator, Alioth Finance, 1 Feb. 2018,

[13] University of North Carolina Papers (#40005), Contract between the Board of Trustees and Collier & Waitt, December 20, 1844,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, Dabney Cosby to Davis L. Swain, May 11, 1846,

[16] Many thanks to Caroline Collins, Kacie England, Jennifer Gay, Claire Paluszak and Sydney Plummer for their exhaustive research on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s buildings and construction.

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