‘Black and Blue’ tour traces Carolina’s racial history
One of the oldest landmarks on campus is the monument on McCorkle Place marking the resting place of Joseph Caldwell, Carolina’s first president.
The marble obelisk is actually the second memorial. The original, made of sandstone, was moved to the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery more than a century ago to mark the burial site of another Caldwell: Wilson Swain Caldwell. A groundskeeper and campus servant – and the son of Joseph Caldwell’s slave November – he was later the head of the campus janitorial staff until his death in 1889.
From Caldwell to Caldwell is how Tim McMillan traces the University’s racial history during his “Black and Blue” campus walking tour, which explores life at Carolina through slavery and Jim Crow laws to the desegregation of campus and the racial tension that came with a changing student body.
“Talking to my students here in 2014, I find that they are always amazed to learn this past because it’s not something they usually feel today,” said McMillan. “But you don’t have to go very far to study the history of race and slavery – you can walk around the place we’re already in.”
A landscape of learning
When McMillan, a longtime senior lecturer in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, developed the tour in 2001 he started with the Joseph Caldwell Monument.
The arrival of the Unsung Founders Memorial in 2005 gave it a new anchor.
A gift of the Class of 2002, the sculpture – made of black granite and supported by 300 bronze figures – was placed on McCorkle Place to honor “the University’s unsung founders – the people of color bond and free – who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.”
“From the moment it appeared, it’s been viewed with a variety of eyes for all sorts of reasons,” said McMillan. “It’s the perfect place to start because it opens all these doors. How do black people see it, how do white people see it, how does it fit in with the Civil War monument across from it?”
What was intended to honor the people who built Carolina’s campus came under fire for different reasons: The artist wasn’t black. The language on the inscription doesn’t use the word “slave.” Trash can sometimes be found wedged between the figures.
“I doubt people mean to intentionally desecrate it, but it’s easy to symbolically misuse,” McMillan said. “People use it to stretch before a run or put their drinks on it, and it’s a monument to heroes.”
The Unsung Founders Memorial, Joseph Caldwell Monument and Silent Sam make this part of campus a “historic triangle” of Carolina in the 19th century.
“We talk about ways our past creates our present, specifically our racial past. How do you create one monument, one story that will encompass all of this?” said McMillan. “I want people to think as they walk across campus: what happened on this place and to create this place we love?”
A not-so-distant past
In crossing Cameron Avenue, the tour meets the 20th century at South Building. The building where Wilson Swain Caldwell had worked as head janitor a century before is where members of the Black Student Movement held sit-ins to advocate for a black cultural center and the creation of the department where McMillan has taught since 1997.
Nearby, Historic Playmakers Theatre was the site of Carolina’s first desegregated classroom in 1939 when author Zora Neale Hurston took playwriting classes with Paul Green.
“She wasn’t an officially matriculated student, but she wanted to learn how to turn her stories into plays,” McMillan said. “For a year, she was an unofficial black female student on Carolina’s campus.”
Green eventually moved the class to his house to protect Hurston from students’ negative attitudes towards her.
Steele Building, which now holds the offices of General College academic advising, housed Carolina’s first black students – brothers Ralph and LeRoy Frasier and John Brandon – in 1951. The University officially desegregated in 1955, earlier than many southern campuses.
“They didn’t graduate from UNC because they didn’t have the easiest time on this campus, as you can imagine. An important part of the story, though, is that they’ve come back to visit and to tell their stories, and their descendants have come to Carolina to learn,” McMillan said.
As current Carolina students enter Steele Building to see their advisers, he said, “it’s really a reminder that the struggle of desegregation is fresh.”
Behind Hamilton Hall sits The Student Body, a collection of four copper statues. The original monument included six statues when it was unveiled in front of Davis Library in 1990.
Meant to represent the campus’ diversity, many students thought the monument reinforced cultural stereotypes. In 1991, the statue depicting a black student balancing a basketball was vandalized. The monument moved to its current location, and the statues depicting the basketball player and an Asian student playing a violin were later removed.
“It brought up a lot of issues for people: debates about public art and free speech, issues of race and student safety,” he said. “This wasn’t even the racist 1930s – this was in the 1990s.”
An unforgettable history
McMillan ends with the Wilson Swain Caldwell monument in the cemetery off South Road. The monument is also dedicated to three other enslaved men who worked for the University: Wilson’s father, November; David Barham; and Henry Smith. The cemetery is segregated, divided by one of the stone walls built by slave hands.
“That wall shows that from the 1700s to today, there’s a wall that divides black and white in the graveyard,” he said. “We cannot forget that this is our history.”
Uncomfortable histories string throughout America and American universities, not just UNC, McMillan said. The narratives need to be told, and there’s more information than ever to help tell them.
“There are symbols, and then there are the specific sets of facts around them,” he said. “Every person in the world with a smart device has access to what used to belong to two historians plowing through dusty images.”’
Through online resources like Carolina’s virtual museum, Documenting the American South and UNC Library’s deep collections of digitized archival documents and photos, everyone can have the same access to facts: from the racially charged speech Julian Carr gave in 1913 as he dedicated Silent Sam to the actual writings of campus poet and slave George Moses Horton. In 2007, Hinton James North was renamed the George Moses Horton Residence Hall.
“Teaching history is different now because, anything I say, these students can fact check me, and they do. The data and texts are there for us to look at and help inform how we feel about them now,” McMillan said.
Until McMillan started the “Black and Blue” tour, much of the legacy of African Americans on campus went unknown and unnoticed, said Taffye Benson Clayton, associate vice chancellor and chief diversity officer.
“His wealth of knowledge on this topic is something we should all avail ourselves of,” she said. “History is the foundation on which we build our future, and the future of this University is dependent on people like Professor McMillan and others to help inform our decisions as we move forward.”
McMillan’s next tour will be Feb. 21 at 3 p.m. as part of the UNC Visitors’ Center Priceless Gem tour series and Carolina’s celebration of Black History Month. Tours start from the Visitors’ Center, located inside the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.