The College Servants
From its earliest days the university depended on the labor of individuals it termed "college servants." It is difficult to document the lives of these servants, but the items in this section provide some glimpses of them.
The use of the term servant does not mean that the college servants were not slaves, because antebellum southerners often referred to their household slaves as servants and to the slaves who worked in their yards, gardens, and fields as hands. Many, if not all, of the college servants who worked for the university prior to 1863 were slaves.
We have found nothing to indicate that the university ever bought slaves. However, it was a common practice for slaveholders to "hire out" their slaves to perform services for others. In this section is an item documenting two instances in which the university paid local citizens for the hire of slaves to work as college servants.
Arthur Stanley Link in his History of the Buildings at the University of North Carolina states that "it had been the custom for some of the wealthier students . . . to bring with them to college their personal slaves." This practice was apparently prevalent enough that the trustees in 1845 adopted an ordinance declaring that "no servant except the regular college servants shall be employed by the students to perform any of the ordinary duties of college servants."
Among the ordinary duties of the college servants were getting up before daylight and kindling fires in the students' rooms as well as keeping the dormitories and recitation halls clean. Students were charged a fee for servant hire, but it seems to have been permissible to pay extra for services beyond the servants' ordinary duties. According to Kemp P. Battle in his History of the University of North Carolina, "Few students blackened their own boots or carried their own parcels. The profits of such jobs went to the servants."
From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).
3 December 1844. Elisha Mitchell to David L. Swain. Professor Mitchell writes to President Swain proposing a blind ditch to convey water away from the foundation of South Building. He says "the college hands" could dig it in a week.
1848. "Account of Expenditures for the improvement of the College grounds." This account, in Elisha Mitchell's handwriting, includes "Wages board clothing Etc of Sim Fred" and "Wages of Servant Edmund."
22 October 1851. David L. Swain to Charles Manly. President Swain suggests to Manly, secretary-treasurer of the Board of Trustees, that the college servants be given the task of cutting "old, decayed and decaying trees from our own lands" in order to supply the students with firewood.
[1853-1854?]. Students' petition. This petition recognizes Lee Couch, a white man, who "has devoted himself entirely to [the students'] service" and states that "The College servants for some year or two past have been-as they say-unable to perform the various duties assigned to them."
August 1856. Lemuel Benbury's account. Lemuel Benbury, a student from Edenton, NC, describes what he saw on the night the old belfry burned. From his window he saw sparks but supposed they were from "the ball which had lodged on the top" and not from the belfry itself. The ball he refers to was a fireball-tightly wound rags doused with alcohol or kerosene and set alight. It was not uncommon for some students to entertain themselves by throwing fireballs. Benbury went to investigate, but when he could not convince those present to do anything about the fireball atop the belfry, he returned to his room. He recalls that "coming up the steps, I met a negro, and asked him where he was going, to which he said he had been sent by some of the young men to put out the fire, I then told him to go on and if he could not succeed to inform Dr. Mitchell."
From Records of the Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance #40095 (connect to finding aid).
1830. Historical Financial Records, Volume 19. This volume was kept by Professor James Phillips during the time he served as the university's bursar. Among the bursar's duties was the collection of tuition and fees. The page on the right (page 2) shows a list of students and the amounts collected from them. Note that each student paid two dollars for servant hire. The page on the left contains two entries documenting the hire of slaves to work as college servants. On the university's behalf, Phillips paid Elizabeth King sixty-five dollars for the hire of Nelson and William Barham sixty-five dollars for the hire of David.
From Records of the General Faculty and Faculty Council #40106 (connect to finding aid).
4 September 1875. Volume 1:6. "Mr. Mickle was authorized to hire Wilson Swain [later Caldwell] as College servant at $15 per month" [first meeting after the reopening of the university].
1 June 1885. Volume 1:6. "On motion of Prof. Holmes Wilson Caldwell is to be employed to work in the campus until the 1st of Sept."
30 October 1885. Volume 1:7. "Committee on arranging duties of servants reported that the dormitories are now divided equally and allotted to Charles, Eli & Bill. John assigned Profs. Venable & Holmes' lecture rooms and Laboratories and the Gymnasium. Charles, in addition to dormitories, assigned Pres[iden]t's lecture room and reading room & Library and the other recitation rooms divided between Eli & Bill. Committee on Servants requested to make arrangements for the emptying of the slops & c."
8 December 1885. Volume 1:7. "Pres[iden]t reported that Wilson Caldwell had been employed as head college servant at $20.00 per month."
From Burgwyn Family Papers #1687 (connect to the finding aid).
3 April 1859. Henry King Burgwyn, Jr. to his mother. Burgwyn gives a disparaging description of the physical appearance of a servant.
From John Steele Henderson Papers #327 ( connect to the finding aid).
16 October 1859. Leonard Henderson to his mother. Leonard Henderson, a student from Salisbury, tells the harrowing story of another student, James Thompson, who caught fire "while trying to light one fluid lamp by another." The students did not attempt to save him because they feared catching fire, too, "and had it not been for one of the servants belonging to the building he must inevitably have perished." Thompson lived until 1873. Henderson was killed in the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864.
From John DeBerniere Hooper Papers #835 ( connect to the finding aid).
19 October 1861. Letter from Jerry Hooper to Master. Jerry Hooper was a slave of John De Berniere Hooper, an 1831 graduate and later professor of the university. At the time Jerry wrote this letter, John De Berniere was teaching at the Fayetteville Female Institute. It appears that Jerry had been allowed to live in Chapel Hill and to hire himself out as a servant. But, as he explains, "when the war broke out the students volunteered and did not pay me for my labor."
From Elisha Mitchell Papers #518 (connect to the finding aid).
Volume 4, 1818-1842. Appointed bursar in 1836, Professor Mitchell not only collected tuition and fees but also acted as banker for the students' spending money. Students would deposit money with him, and he would disburse it as needed for expenses such as board, firewood, washing and servant hire. It seems to have been customary for students to hire servants to perform services that were outside the regular duties of the college servants. On page 107 are entries for payments made 31 January 1839 on behalf of several students: $4.00 to Dave [Barham] for an unspecified service done for William Logan; $20.00 to Mrs. Nunn for Hairston's board; and a total of $4.25 to November [Caldwell] for firewood supplied to Avery, Burton, and Smallwood.
From William Sidney Mullins Diary #531-z (connect to the finding aid).
20 January 1841. "Dave woke me when he came to make my fire this morning and I asked "is it snowing yet? . . . Yessir and harder than ever."
From Pettigrew Family Papers #592 (connect to the finding aid).
Draft of a composition by James Johnston Pettigrew. This item offers a rare glimpse of a college servant, a slave known to students as Lord Chesterfield.
From Polk and Yeatman Family Papers #606 (connect to the finding aid).
26 October 1822. Statement of work done by "Col. Polk's hands viz. Jourdan and 2 others" at Chapel Hill.
25 November 1829. The Hillsborough Recorder, Volume X, no. 508, p. 3. This is an advertisement for a runaway slave named James, who "ran off from the University," where he had been a college servant. It is signed by S. M. Stewart. We do not know who S. M. Stewart was, but he probably was the owner of James and most likely had hired James out to work for the university. VC071 H65.
Battle, Kemp P. Sketch of the Life and Character of Wilson Caldwell. Chapel Hill, NC: University Press Co. Print., 1895 (opens in a new window). Wilson Caldwell was born into slavery but lived to experience the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. He was the son of November Caldwell, who had been President Joseph Caldwell's coachman, and Rosa Burgess, a slave of President Swain. In 1853, when he was twelve years old, he began working for Thomas Paxton, the English gardener who had been hired to beautify the campus. After about eight years, according to Battle, "he was promoted to be a waiter" in the laboratories, dormitories, and lecture halls. He held this position until 1869, when the new Board of Trustees cut his wages. Resigning in "disgust," he obtained a position as head of "a free school for colored children in Chapel Hill." When the university reopened in 1875 he "was offered and accepted his old position, with the duties and responsibilities, although not with the name, of janitor." In 1884 he left the university briefly and moved to Durham, hoping to improve his wages. But he came back to Chapel Hill, informing Battle that "Durham is not a place for a literary man." CpB C145b.