Finding Wilson Caldwell: The Study of Slavery at UNC

Wilson Caldwell in the 1890s outside Old East. After emancipation, he worked through the Republican Party to forge a biracial alliance of 
former slaves and sympathetic whites. He returned to UNC in 1884 and worked as a laborer until his death in 1898. (Collier Cobb Photo Collection, N.C. Collection)

Class attendance was pretty poor in Jim Leloudis’ seminar last fall. Only one session in the room with the white board and the little pullout desks. The rest of Tuesday afternoons, the longtime history professor took 15 undergraduates in “Slavery and the University” to where UNC’s slave story is — Wilson Library’s archives.

In the vast trove of Wilson, focus is essential, and Leloudis’ students took on a complicated subject: With no public funding from its chartering until late in the 19th century, the University depended on tuition, private giving and the proceeds from the sale of escheated property. “That is,” Leloudis says, “the property of people who died without a will or without discoverable heirs.” Enslaved people figured prominently into that.

The original monument to Joseph Caldwell, UNC’s first president, now is in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and honors Wilson Caldwell and other enslaved people who worked on campus. (UNC/Dan Sears ’74)

It’s one of many aspects of the University’s racial past that are known but not widely talked about, and a goal of this class is to amplify the conversation on and off the campus — the students will write case reports toward producing a roving exhibit.

Leloudis ’77 (’89 PhD) talked in more general terms to some 200 people at the annual William Richardson Davie Dinner in Charlotte in November. His students also have studied the life details of Wilson Caldwell, a not altogether unknown man — his father, November Caldwell, had been enslaved, owned by UNC’s first president, Joseph Caldwell, and Wilson Caldwell’s resting place in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is marked with the large obelisk that once stood over President Caldwell’s grave.

The University, Leloudis told the mostly alumni audience, purchased the slaves’ labor from faculty and townspeople and then passed the cost on to students.

“They cleared brush and dead and fallen trees and paved the campus lanes with crushed stone and tar. And they also maintained those campus walls, those iconic campus walls that had been built by other slave laborers decades earlier, in order to protect the campus from the livestock, from the cattle and the pigs the townspeople and the faculty allowed to roam and graze freely.

“The men like Wilson and November who attended the students began their workdays well before dawn. They arose and they made fires in the students’ rooms. They used firewood that other slaves had cut and stacked in the hallways. They swept their rooms. They blackened their shoes. They delivered pails of fresh water. And they also provided basic sanitation, such as it was. Basic sanitation meant emptying the slop jars out the window to the ground below.

“When students dressed in the morning, they put on clothes that enslaved women had washed in the households nearby. As they moved through the day, they took their meals at boarding houses where black women labored as cooks and cleaners. So slavery was woven into every aspect, every moment of students’ lives.”

“Slavery and the University” was one of 18 classes listed under UNC’s Reckoning: Race, Memory and Reimagining the Public University project last fall. One day in the archive’s letters, journals and ledgers — imagine poring over 19th-century papers without having studied cursive writing — came an Indiana Jones moment. A student ran through the search room practically screaming.

“We had finally pinned down Wilson Caldwell’s birthday,” he said. “She found a letter. It was written three days after Caldwell’s birth, by [UNC President David] Swain [who then owned Caldwell], who described that building. He described it in his words as a ‘miserable log structure, 18 by 20, a story-and-a-half high.’ Eight people lived there, four adults and four children.”

“Slavery was woven into every aspect, every moment of students’ lives. … Slaves built the University. And they also sustained it in important ways financially. … Their labor produced the wealth to pay the cost of educating the sons of slave-owning elite who were drawn to Chapel Hill from all across North Carolina and throughout the South.” 

On the eve of the Civil War, Leloudis said, Chapel Hill’s population was 1,736 whites — 430 of them students — more than 100 free blacks and 479 slaves. Besides those hired out to the University, they worked farms and were sent as far as Raleigh to work. Most of their names were lost — census takers weren’t required to record them. “But you know, Wilson Caldwell knew all of those people intimately,” Leloudis told his audience. “He knew them as kin. He knew them as neighbors. And as he grew to adulthood, he must have listened to their stories and learned how they and their forebears had built and sustained the University. A walk across McCorkle Place today, and certainly when Wilson Caldwell was making that journey, it reveals a landscape made by the toil and the talents of enslaved workmen.

“Today, we’ve uncovered the names of about 100 of those laborers, and there was surely many more. They are likely, again, to remain unknown to us because of large gaps in the University’s financial and administrative records. But here are a couple of examples of the kind of records that have survived.”

He showed a bill for the labor of workers named Tommy, Henry, Bob, William, Nelson and Peter, who worked in the 1820s to renovate Old East. “And we know from this document that they shored up the foundations of the building.”

“You can see those foundations, and they’re actually bricks there. They were made by enslaved laborers and laid by enslaved laborers. Those workmen also worked on dismantling the chimneys on the Old East and salvaging the brick. The third floor was added to the building.”

He read more names, workers who built Gerrard Hall: Stuart and Chester, Peter, Cicero, Calvin, Clinton, Gee, Evans, Louis, Essom, Abraham, Thomas, Finn, Jordan, Henderson and Ephram.

“So, slaves built the University. And they also sustained it in important ways financially. They did so in a couple of ways. One is that their labor produced the wealth to pay the cost of educating the sons of slave-owning elite who were drawn to Chapel Hill from all across North Carolina and throughout the South.” Of the 84-member class of 1860, only one came from a nonslave-holding family.

In the second half of Wilson Caldwell’s life, he was active in the state Republican Party, “where he worked to forge a biracial alliance of former slaves and sympathetic whites who sought to build a new South, reconstructed as an inclusive democracy,” Leloudis said. With his freedom and office-holding rights, Wilson Caldwell became a justice of the peace and a town commissioner. He ran schools for black children. But he went back to work as what was then called a “college servant” at UNC from 1884 until his death in 1898.

“We’ve not discovered anything, at least not yet, of his commentary or thinking about the University.”

That day might yet come. “What excites me, I think most of all, is the insatiable curiosity these students have. And also, their initiative. You know, they came and asked for this kind of course. And this is, you know, work that universities all over the country, and now internationally, are doing. But it’s these students who came with this just such admirable seriousness of purpose and said: ‘We want to learn about this in a sustained way. And we want to go back into the history of the University.’

“This is a dark chapter for many an institution’s history. And yet, I think part of what animates those students is they also know enough of who we are and who we have been that they know that it’s The University of North Carolina and people speak the name in that way because at our very best, we provided leadership.”

— David E. Brown ’75


A consortium of more than 50 universities, including UNC, studying slavery.

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