University of North Carolina held its opening ceremony on January
15, 1795, and soon after became the first state university to
The winter of 1794-1795 had been rough, and by mid January the
roads were a muddy mess. Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight made
the difficult trip from Raleigh to Chapel Hill for the official
opening and was met by members of the Board of Trustees and other
government officials. When these dignitaries gathered to open
the University on January 15th, 1795, it was a cold, windy, rainy
day and the area looked more like a construction site than a
college campus. Only the two-story East Building and the unpainted
wooden house of the Presiding Professor had been completed. The
rest of the campus was filled with tree stumps, recently dug
clay, and piles of lumber to be used for additional buildings.
The North Carolina Journal reported that “the buildings
prepared for the reception and accommodation of students are
in part finished, and that youth disposed to enter the University
may come forward with the assurance of being received.”
With the campus ready, and the Governor and school officials
gathered for the ceremony, all that was missing was students.
Unfortunately, none showed up. It wasn’t until three weeks
later that 18-year-old Hinton James arrived on campus from his
home in Wilmington from which, as legend has it, he walked all
the way to Chapel Hill. For two weeks James comprised the entire
student body, but he soon had company. By the end of the first
term, the new university had 41 students receiving instruction
from two faculty members. When the first graduation was held
in 1798, James was among seven students receiving degrees.
The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 authorized “one
or more” state universities. The university was formally
established by the North Carolina General Assembly in December
1789, and the first members of the Board of Trustees met later
that month to begin raising funds and to select a site for the
school. A small group of commissioners charged with finding a
location viewed more than a dozen sites in Orange and Chatham
counties before selecting a spot at what was then called New
Hope Chapel Hill. The cornerstone for the first building, East
Building (now “Old East"), was laid on October 12,
1793. The drawing of East Building by a UNC student in 1797,
shown on this page, is the first known image of the University
of North Carolina.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Powell, William S. The First State University: A Pictorial
History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Snider, William D. Light on the Hill: A History of the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Battle, Kemp Plummer. History of the University of North
Carolina. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1912. Available
online through Documenting the American South at http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/battle1/menu.html.