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.

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