BY JENNIFER WALDKIRCH
Often, the narratives we form about our history connect more to our beliefs about the current world than they do about what actually happened in the past. With that in mind, the story of the University of North Carolina exists somewhat romantically in the minds of most students and alumni. After all, as one of the first public universities in the United States, our school opened the door for a more universal education system. For many it exists as the pinnacle of North Carolina’s achievements. This particular narrative of school history is plagued by a blatant disregard for the history of minorities, particularly African Americans, at Chapel Hill. Yet, generally, the more troubling aspects of our school’s history have receded away from public consciousness.
In no way is this a new conversation, but it is an important one. It’s also one that the late historian, social activist, and UNC graduate, John K. Chapman, devoted a lot of his time exploring. In his 2006 Phd dissertation, called “Black Freedom and the University of Chapel Hill,” Chapman began revising the idea that we are, as he called it, a “University of the People.” Writing that “previous scholarship has contributed to a culture of denial and racial historical amnesia” he made the case that the university still has not come to terms with its past. Everyday students walk past monuments of racism, often with little knowledge of their white supremacist connections.
Let’s take a tour of the some of the most familiar landmarks at UNC with questionable or overtly racist histories:
1. Dean Smith Center and Kenan Stadium
Stopping first at both the Dean Dome and Kenan Stadium, we must begin with the beloved Tar Heel nickname. Yes, we students shout it in a reverberating echo at most sporting events, “TAR… HEEL… TAR… HEEL!” Have you ever wondered why we picked a dirty appendage rather than a more sensible nickname like the Wildcats or the Demon Deacons? (Just kidding about Demon Deacons. That’s dumb. What were you thinking, Wake Forest?) Well the etymology of the nickname “Tar Heel” is a bit convoluted. It began as a pejorative commentary on North Carolina’s early colonial shipping industry, where tar and pitch were used to coat the bottom of ships. It was obviously an indication of poverty and low class if you were constantly walking around with tar on the bottom of your heels. However, “Tar Heel” quickly became a common term for North Carolina’s soldiers in both the Revolutionary and Civil War. Especially during the Civil War, “Tar Heel” became a proud name for men fighting for their state. Most famously, it was used by the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, who once remarked, “God bless the Tar Heel boys!” The nickname made perfect sense to UNC students and they cemented its collegiate use with the founding of a newspaper in 1893, called The Tar Heel (later renamed The Daily Tar Heel). So, in summary, this is a bit like naming your sports team the Rebels (Shout out to the University of Mississippi!).
If right now you’re tempted to tell me, “heritage not hate,” understand that the history of the Confederacy carries with it a complex baggage that means different things to people of different backgrounds. Keep in mind that, according to the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, it was an institution openly founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” I won’t waste much time trying to convince you that we need to change our name simply because it references Confederate soldiers. That question is certainly still a matter of debate. It’s more important that we as a school understand where our name and identity comes from. With that thought in mind, let’s keep going…
2. Silent Sam, completed in 1913
Here we have Silent Sam, probably one of the most controversial features of our campus. To some, he is merely a monument to the 321 UNC alumni that lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy. Taken merely as a memorial to the great human costs of the Civil War, Sam reminds us that many who went off to fight and die were compelled by their government to do so. However, this sentiment is muddied by the intentions of those who funded his construction. Erected in 1913 with support from the Daughters of the Confederacy, the dedication of Silent Sam lacked the sorrowful tone and dignity of, say, a Ken Burn’s documentary. It was more like your most racist elderly relatives getting together at Thanksgiving to discuss “the good old days,” i.e. when free forced labor was government sanctioned.
One of the speakers at the dedication was a wealthy industrialist, named Julian Shakespeare Carr. Thirteen years earlier, Carr had run unsuccessfully for the US Senate on the platform of white supremacy. His beliefs were evident throughout his speech, stating, “The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” If it wasn’t clear to his audience at that point that he was a racist, the anecdote he told later in the same speech probably cleared that up. Bragging about how he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” because “she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady,” Carr obviously took great pride in having beaten a Black woman half to death. (His entire speech can be found here, from UNC’s archives.)
3. The Carr Building, completed in 1900
So guess what? That guy from the story above… he got his own building at UNC. Carr Building opened as a dormitory in 1900 and now functions as a faculty office building. To be honest, getting this building was probably lower on his list of achievements than getting the whole town of Carrboro named in honor of him. Ever eaten at Elmo’s diner at the Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro? Carr Mill was the old cotton factory Carr owned, reopened as a shopping mall in 1974. Julian Carr was also instrumental in turning Trinity College into Duke University. While this one was probably a lesser lapse in moral judgement than many other things he’d done, it doesn’t make me like him anymore. As it turns out, Duke also has a building dedicated to him.
4. Saunders Hall, completed in 1922
Next on our list of buildings dedicated to awful white dudes is Saunders Hall. William L. Saunders graduated from UNC in 1854 and went on to serve as a colonel during the Civil War. After the war, from his home in Chapel Hill, he became a chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.
Although many of you are probably familiar with the organization, allow me to offer a brief history of the KKK. After the Civil War, many whites became very concerned with the shifts in power that allowed Black Republicans to hold political office (an idea I’ll return to in the next section). The KKK was created under the guise of protection for white Southerners against yankee “carpetbaggers” and Blacks. In reality, they committed acts of violence and murder against Black citizens, doing everything they could to intimidate Blacks from voting. Though many defenders of Confederate heritage hold the KKK separate from Confederate soldiers, it is true that many Southerners joined the Klan after returning home from war. The original organization was created by six veterans of the Confederate Army, and quickly joined by one of the most famous Confederate generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
William Saunders orchestrated the beatings and assassinations of Blacks in many of the Piedmont counties, including Orange County. After Democrats brutally forced their way back into power, Saunders served as North Carolina’s Secretary of State and Secretary of the Executive Committee of the UNC Board of Trustees.
5. Spencer Dormitory, completed in 1924
Here’s a change of pace from all the hating on white dudes: Spencer dormitory, completed in 1924 as the first residence hall for women, was named after a lady, Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Her story, like many stories constructed from the Reconstruction era, portrays the bravery of white Southern men and women following the devastation of the Civil War. If you’ve seen Gone With the Wind then this type of romanticism towards the South should be familiar. As the old story goes: yankees come and ruin everything (i.e. free forced labor is no longer a government sanctioned activity), yankees take everything but the grace and dignity of the Southern people, and now the beautiful and brave white Southerners must make the best of their new circumstances (i.e. turn previously free forced labor into very cheap labor). Cornelia Spencer, the daughter of a UNC professor, was one of those beautiful and brave Southern women responsible for pulling the university back together under these new circumstances. Credited with reopening UNC after its devastation during the Civil War, Spencer begged the legislature for the funds necessary. In 1875, after finally receiving $125,000 from the state government, she climbed to the top of South Building and rang its bell, announcing to the entire town that the university would soon be reopened. Known heroically as “the woman who rang the bell,” Spencer’s story remains untarnished by pertinent truths concerning her cause or beliefs.
The real story of Reconstruction is far more complicated than the one we see depicted in Gone With the Wind or Spencer’s story. To put things briefly, Reconstruction was initially a very radical change in the political power structure of the South. With the Republican party in charge, from 1870 to 1876, North Carolina had 30 Black state legislators and one Black U.S. Congressman, named John A. Hyman. Men like Hyman, formerly enslaved, were now representing a constituency in North Carolina that had never before been heard. Of course, this made most Southerners very angry. So angry that they could not bear to see their university open under such a government. A fact that often gets left out of the original story, Cornelia Spencer was instrumental in closing the university in 1870 to protect it from Reconstruction politics. She fought alongside men like Col. William Saunders to defend white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan while dismantling North Carolina’s Reconstruction government and voting rights for Blacks. While she is still hailed by some as a crusader for women’s equality, it is clear that she only wanted power in the hands of white men and women (side note: unfortunately, many of history’s greatest crusaders for women’s equality were also white supremacists).
6. Daniels Building/Student Stores, completed in 1968
Okay, back to the awful white dudes. There are just two more awful white dudes to suffer through (well on this list, anyway). Daniels Student Stores is one of those buildings that all of us, regardless of our major, have been through too many times to count. Completed in 1868, it was named after Josephus Daniels, a former editor of the Raleigh News and Observer and Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration. As editor of the News and Observer, Daniels is credited with forming a new white supremacy campaign in North Carolina, leading to Democratic victories in 1898 and 1900.
Prior to these dates, during the 1890s, North Carolina had once again achieved a coalition of Black and white representatives within the state legislature. In an era of Fusion politics, Black Republicans and white populists formed a powerful alliance dedicated to things like education and voting reform. It wasn’t until 1898, when the Democrats of the state essentially took their power back by force that Blacks would finally be kicked out of office. The Wilmington Race Riot is one of the most famous and violent example of whites overturning the democratic process in favor of outright thuggery. During the election of 1898, the Democrats of Wilmington stuffed the ballot boxes with candidates of the white supremacy campaign. Despite their efforts, voters elected a biracial fusionist government to serve in the city government. Two days after the election, 500 white men went on a rampage, killing an unknown number of Black citizens and forcing the fusionist politicians to resign. Josephus Daniels was instrumental in creating this tension that erupted into mass violence, writing in the Raleigh News and Observer that Wilmington suffered from “Negro domination.” His newspaper frequently published racist propaganda, meant to frighten white citizens away from electing Blacks to political office or even allowing them to vote. After the riot, the white supremacists of Wilmington pointed to Daniels as their catalyst for violence.
7. Hamilton Hall, completed in 1972
Last awful white dude on this list is J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton, a professor of history at the university from 1906 to 1948. Hamilton Hall was built in 1972 as housing for the departments of History, Political Science, and Sociology. The school chose the name in recognition of Hamilton’s historical contributions to the university, including the creation of the Southern Historical Collection. However, it was his writings on Reconstruction that won him a job at UNC’s History Department. Like the white supremacist historians who constructed the heroic narrative about Cornelia Spencer, Hamilton’s history sought to romanticize the efforts of white Southerners after Reconstruction. In his 1914 book, Reconstruction in North Carolina, he praised the Ku Klux Klan for restoring “political power to the white race.”
8. Unsung Founders Memorial, completed in 2005
The Unsung Founders Memorial is located in MCcorkle Place, not far from the Silent Sam monument. It contains the inscription, “The Class of 2002 honors the University’s unsung founders – the people of color bond and free – who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.” Yet, for many, this “memorial” exists as a rather sad representation of the university’s failure to come to terms with its racist past. In 2009, a forum was conducted to discuss the race relations in Chapel Hill. A local poet, C.J. Suitt addressed the issues with the memorial, saying that the university “has erected a 20-foot-tall monument to the Civil War, ‘Silent Sam,’ and less than a hundred yards away is a slave monument that’s … a table – a table that has these two-foot slaves holding it up,” He added, “The last time I walked past there was a lovely white family enjoying lunch.”
This is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list of all of UNC’s racial problems. The visible landmarks at our school are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the discussion of racial inequality. However, they are a good place to start. Often history is a good place to start when it comes to evaluating our present circumstances. The University of North Carolina has been a historic defender of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy, and countless activists have worked to expose this truth on our campus. In 1999, Students Seeking Historical Truth was founded by current and former members of UNC’s Black Student Movement. They worked to encourage historical honesty from the university concerning the many buildings you read about above. Today, The Real Silent Sam is a group that exists on campus, founded in 2011 to “create honest public dialogue and provoke critical thought surrounding the monuments and buildings in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.” The conversation they have sparked demands that the university challenge both its past and present, and confront the fact that institutional racism persists as a problem at our university. For example, last year, it was discovered that our newest class, the class of 2017, has just 98 African American males out of 4,000 students. Black students continue to be a minority at a school that has historically championed their disenfranchisement. It is hard to imagine that we could ever have been considered a “University of the People.”