One on One: Heard enough about Chapel Hill?

by D.G. Martin

D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – Are you tired of hearing about Chapel Hill? Have you heard enough to last a lifetime? Has the multipart ESPN series about Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance,” been the last straw?

Even so, there are things about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that all North Carolinians ought to know about this important institution.

So, here is a new book, “UNC A to Z: What Every Tar Heel Needs to Know about the First State University,” by Nicholas Graham, the university’s archivist, and Cecelia Moore, former university historian. Disguised as a campus guidebook, it is a serious and compelling university portrait.

Maybe the first thing we should know is whether or not the institution in Chapel Hill is really the first state university. One of the book’s hundreds of alphabetical entries, “First State University,” explains that both Georgia and North Carolina have claimed the distinction. “Georgia was the first to be chartered, and UNC the first to open.” UNC admitted students in 1795. Georgia’s first student did not arrive until 1801. But “A to Z”, proving its objectiveness, gives its readers the facts and lets them make up their minds about which university is first.

The book deals similarly with the controversial and confusing question about the name of UNC. Is it the University of North Carolina, UNC, UNC-Chapel Hill, or Carolina?

“A to Z” answers in the introduction: “Throughout the book, we refer to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill using the familiar, shortened terms ‘UNC Chapel Hill,’ ‘Carolina,’ or ‘the university.’ In acknowledgment of the university’s name change in 1963 when ‘at Chapel Hill’ was added, references in this book to ‘UNC’ refer to the university primarily during the period before the creation of the consolidated state university system.”

If this answer does not satisfy you, you are not alone. But it would take another whole book to give a complete story of the university’s changing names.

Meanwhile, “A to Z” charges on with its short entries in convenient alphabetical order. Many entries deal with places, buildings, or objects. I was curious to see what “A to Z” would say about the controversy over the Silent Sam statue.

“Confederate Monument” is one of the book’s longer entries and one of many that deal with the university’s complicated and continuing association with race. It cites the speech of Julian Carr at the monument’s dedication in 1913 praising the Confederate army for “saving the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”

Only a few pages earlier in an entry titled “Carr Building,” “A to Z” notes that in 1900, this “frequent donor” funded the building in its entirety. Carr made a fortune in tobacco and textiles. In politics he actively championed “the cause of white supremacy.”

Other campus buildings are named for important university figures who were also slaveholders or white supremacists.

Joseph Gregoire de Roulhac Hamilton chaired the history department from 1908 until 1930. Hamilton Hall is named for him.  He was “an avowed white supremacist” and defended “Ku Klux Klan violence and Jim Crow segregation.” Hamilton energetically collected family and business records all over the South. These papers became the foundation of the Southern Historical Collection housed at the university’s library.

Interestingly, some of the book’s most important information was available only because of Hamilton’s efforts. His records are “the primary sources that a younger generation of historians would use to challenge and eventually discredit the work of Hamilton and other Confederate apologists.”

“A to Z” drips with the irony that some of the university’s most progressive strengths are built on foundations of the contributions of slaveholders and white supremacists.

“A to Z” is a book, not just for Carolina loyalists, but also for everyone who wants to understand the complex mix of attributes of our first state university.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 pm and Tuesday at 5:00 pm on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8:00 pm and other times.

To view prior programs: video.unctv.org/show/nc-bookwatch/episodes/

Advertisements