Slavery and the Making of the University University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Manuscripts Department Slavery and the Making of the University

Slaves and the University Buildings

University of North Carolina, 1855 University of North Carolina, 1855. From Cyclopaedia of American Literature . New York: Charles Scribner, 1855. Click on the image to open a larger version in a new window.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to document the extent to which slaves contributed to the building of the university. But we have found a number of items clearly showing that slaves and free blacks participated in the construction of the early buildings. And, given the dominant role that slavery played in the antebellum southern economy, it is probably safe to assume that slaves were far more involved in building the university than we can demonstrate through written documents.

Using census records, we have documented the ownership of slaves by several of the contractors and subcontractors for the antebellum buildings. Other sources, examples of which are included in this section, confirm the use of slave labor by some of the contractors in the construction of the buildings. In these instances, we often cannot be certain whether the slaves were owned by the contractors or by someone else, as the "hiring out" of slaves was quite common. James Patterson used his own slaves to paint the roof of Old East. William Nichols hired Colonel William Polk's slave carpenters to work on the construction of Old West.

Free blacks also contributed to the building of the university, and we have discovered a few documents illustrating their work. Thomas Waitt employed two free black carpenters, Leroy Anderson and James Smith, to help finish Gerrard Hall and make repairs to the other buildings in 1837. President Swain engaged Thomas Day, a respected free black cabinetmaker, to do the interior woodwork in the Dialectic and Philanthropic society libraries in Old East and Old West in 1848.

These free black craftsmen were highly skilled, as were many of the slaves. John Berry, the contractor for Smith Hall (now Playmakers Theatre), made a practice of training his slaves as tinsmiths, carpenters and brick masons and giving them their freedom when they attained master status.

OLD EAST (Original Construction)

From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

19 July 1793. Plan of Old East. On 19 July 1793 the Building Committee of the Board of Trustees contracted with James Patterson of Chatham County to construct the university's first building. The contract is on the verso of this plan, and it specifies "the Building to be (96) Ninety Six feet (7) Seven Inches in Length, (40) forty feet one Inch and a half in width, two storys in height . . . Eight rooms on a floor with a Chimney to each Room . . . the Sum to be given for finishing the said Building . . . is the Sum of two thousand five hundred pounds."

18 August 1795. James Patterson to John Haywood. Patterson writes to John Haywood, secretary-treasurer of the Board of Trustees, to complain that he has not received the final payment for the work on Old East. Recounting the problems he had during the construction, he explains that he proposed painting the roof before the scaffolding was taken down but was forbidden to do so. Once the scaffolding was down, he "was ordered to Paint the Roof and had to Make two Ladders 44 feet Long to Reach the Roof and too Hanging Do 28 feet Long to Reach the Length of the Rafters ... and Risk My own Slaves to Such Jeopardy ... the Least Slip of Hand or foot would have Cost them their Lives and Me a Valuable Servant."


The first President's House, completed in 1795 The first President's House, completed in 1795. Sketch by Hope Summerell Chamberlain. Click on the image to open a larger version in a new window.

From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

8 January 1794. Samuel Hopkins to John Haywood. Samuel Hopkins of Albemarle County, Virginia, endeavors to convince Haywood that he would do a better job constructing the President's House than the local builders who have submitted lower bids. He makes especially disparaging remarks about George Lucas of Chatham County, who has bid £600. "My wish and Inclination was to execute the work in an Extraordinary manner, at the time that I said £1,000," Hopkins writes, "but having an Idea at the same time of Lucas's way of Business by a parcil of aukward Negroes . . . I thought it the only way to put myself on an equality with him [to say] I would do it for £850, rather than loose it." Whether Hopkins' remarks mean that he would not use Negro labor remains a mystery.

25 January 1794. Plan of President's House (opens in a new window). Samuel Hopkins did get the contract to build the President's House, for £800. His bond for the work is written on the back of the specifications for the house, which include this plan. The house was small by modern standards, only thirty by thirty-six feet, though it had a partial cellar and an attic. The little room opposite the stairs on the second floor was the university's first library.

PERSON HALL (Old Chapel)

From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

8 November 1796. Joseph Caldwell to [John H. Hobart*]. Shortly after arriving in Chapel Hill, Joseph Caldwell wrote this letter to his good friend John Hobart at Princeton University. Describing the campus, he reports that "The foundation is laid for a chapel, but when it will be completed is entirely uncertain, as the mason and his negroes have spent the favorable fall they have had in raising the foundation to the surface of the ground." The chapel to which he refers is Person Hall.
*R. D. W. Connor notes that this letter may have been written to Thomas Y. How rather than Hobart.


From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

22 May 1823. "Settlement with Col. William Polk." Colonel William Polk, a hero of the American Revolution, served on the Board of Trustees from 1790 to 1834. He was also one of Raleigh's leading citizens. As this document shows, he hired out five of his slaves to work on the construction of Old West (referred to as New College in the document). By 22 May 1823, Polk had been paid $600 for the labor of Jourdan, Jim, Stephen, Charles, and Joe.

26 May 1823. "Receipt for payment made to Stephen Haywood for the hire of his carpenters Davy, York, and Isaac."

18 February 1824. "Trustees in account with Nimrod Ragsdale." This item includes Ragsdale's charges for bricks and labor on Old East and Old West.


From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

20 October 1825. Bill for bacon "for use of hands employed at Chapel."

1 September 1826. "Account of disbursements by William Nichols for labor and materials in repairing the President's House and Steward's Hall: getting timbers, making bricks & building the New Chapel, taking down cupola from South College, repairing the roof and building a Belfry in the yard agreeably with instructions given by the Building Committee in March 1824."

13 March to 29 April 1837. "Thomas A. Waitt's bill for labour." Soon after becoming president of the university in 1835, David L. Swain hired Thomas Waitt, a New England native, to be superintendent of buildings. He charged Waitt with the completion of Gerrard Hall, which had stood unfinished since 1827, and with making repairs to the other buildings. The documents seen here list the names of individuals who worked for Waitt on the buildings. Those without surnames were most likely slaves. Among the carpenters, Leroy Anderson and James Smith were free men of color, and William Dales was a "colored man."

10 August 1837. William McPheeters to Marcellus McPheeters. The elder McPheeters asks his nephew to inform certain of Mr. Waitt's subcontractors and laborers that he wishes to see them regarding their accounts against the trustees.

16 August [1837]. Thomas Waitt to Reverend McPheeters. Waitt objects that his hands have been "taken away from their work and interrogated in relation to affairs which I contend belonged exclusively to myself."

OLD EAST (Addition of the third story)

From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

Undated. "John C. White's bill for the labor of Negro workmen in repairs to Old College."


From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

11 May 1846. Dabney Cosby to David L. Swain. Dabney Cosby was a Raleigh architect and builder and was the subcontractor in charge of masonry on the additions to Old East and Old West completed in 1848. He penned this note introducing Albert, who "comes up to help his bro. do the Plaistering in the halls." Cosby tells President Swain, "You may rely on what he tells you . . . his Plaistering and Roughcasting has preference to any done in this part of the state."

1 September 1847. David L. Swain to William A. Graham. As the additions to Old East and Old West neared completion, President Swain wrote to former governor William A. Graham, now a member of the Board of Trustees and resident of Hillsborough. Swain believed that "a Cabinet maker rather than a carpenter ought to be employed to put up the shelves in the new libraries." The libraries are those of the Dialectic and Philanthropic societies, whose chambers are to be located in the additions. Swain wonders whether Evans, a free man of color in Hillsborough, "might answer our purposes."

17 November 1847. Thomas Day to David L. Swain. Day encloses an estimate for the shelves; a copy of Swain's reply dated November 24 is on the verso.

6 December 1847. Thomas Day to David L. Swain. For unknown reasons Evans was not hired to do the woodwork in the society libraries, but another free man of color, Thomas Day, was. Day was a skilled and respected cabinetmaker who had a shop in Milton, near the Virginia border. Contemporary documents indicate that he was the owner of slaves as well as real estate. Here he writes to President Swain that it would be better for him to build the shelves in his shop than to build them on site. "The plank has to be of superior quality," he explains, "& dried in a steam kill which I have here . . . I think I can prepare the whole shelving & boxing here with the assistance of my Pour saws and bring it in waggons."

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