CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
In the early decades of the nation’s oldest public university, students
at the University of North Carolina had servants that kindled fires in
their rooms and cut wood to fuel their stoves.
And at the school that’s so proud of its history, archivists have
uncovered and are now displaying publicly evidence that those servants
“I think it’s important for us to know our own history and to be honest about it,” said Chancellor James Moeser.
“This university was built by slaves and free Blacks,” Moeser added.
“We need to be candid about that, acknowledge their contributions.”
The University of North Carolina, chartered in 1789, is among several
institutions of higher learning, joining banks and other financial
firms, that have taken recent steps to research and recognize their
historic ties to the slave trade.
North Carolina archivists were searching through records as part of a
project on the university’s first 100 years when they found records
that confirmed slaves helped construct campus’ buildings. Other records
showed that both faculty and university board members owned slaves.
The research is now on display as part of an on-campus exhibit —
“Slavery and the Making of the University: Celebrating Our Unsung
Heroes, Bond and Free” — that includes photographs, letters, bills of
sale for slaves, and other documents. In one letter, the wife of the
school’s first law professor wrote her husband that university
President David Lowry Swain wanted to hire “Harry” for work, pledging
she would “hire Harry out whenever I can.”
Last April, the faculty senate at the University of Alabama apologized
to the descendants of slaves who were owned by faculty members or who
worked on campus in the years before the Civil War. The school also
erected a marker near the graves of two slaves on campus.
And at Brown University in Rhode Island, a committee is examining the
school’s historic ties to the slave trade and recommending whether and
how the college should take responsibility. A report on the findings is
due by the end of the fall semester.
“We clearly do live in a society that has a persistent pattern of
racial disparity and I think most people would agree that that has
something to do with our history,” said Dr. James Campbell, a history
professor at Brown and the chairman of the committee. “If you care
about that pattern of disparity, then it seems to me one of the things
that is incumbent on you is to try to find out how we got here.”
Just how many schools have ties to the slave trade remains unknown,
since so much information has been concealed, said Harvard law
professor Charles Ogletree. But he believes those found to have had
links to slavery should pay reparations.
In the business world, some banks and financial services firms have
conducted similar investigations, often to comply with local
governments demanding such an accounting of past ties to the slave
trade, and have followed in some cases with financial donations.
Charlotte-based Wachovia Corp. committed an undisclosed sum to support
Black history education a few days after announcing that two of its
predecessor banks owned slaves. New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co.
gave $5 million to support college scholarships for Black students in
Louisiana, where two of its predecessor banks received thousands of
slaves as collateral.
At North Carolina, the university has made several efforts to recognize
the school’s links to slavery. A class is offered on the history of the
Blacks at the school. A monument, to be dedicated next month, was
installed last May that honors slaves and free Blacks who helped build
And when the new exhibit opened, the university sponsored a discussion
led by university professors called “That the Truth May Set us Free:
Examining Our Slaveholding Past.”
Meanwhile, those doing research at North Carolina say they hope the
exhibit is a beginning of new discovery about the school’s past.
Archivists said the exhibit was not an attempt to expose unknown
secrets, but rather share materials that add to the university’s
“I think it is important that we do this since we are the oldest
university,” said Susan Ballinger, assistant university archivist.
“The chancellor has said over and over again that it’s critical for the
university to be honest about its past. He wants our history told
fully, warts and all.”
— Associated Press
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com