The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


History Behind the Headlines: Unsung Founders Memorial

On Monday, two people were arrested on charges of vandalism and ethnic intimidation, after allegedly vandalizing a memorial dedicated to slaves and African American workers on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. The Unsung Founders Memorial was defaced with racial slurs and urine on March 31.

The memorial’s vandalism has further inflamed tensions at the university where last year protestors toppled a statue named “Silent Sam,” viewed by many as a monument to white supremacy.

The memorial was dedicated in 2005, bearing the inscription: “The class of 2002 honors the university’s unsung founders – the people of color bond and free – who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.”

Many of the buildings at the University of North Carolina were constructed by black laborers, many of whom were enslaved. Enslaved African Americans contributed to grounds upkeep, and provided services for students as “college servants.”

According to the “Slavery and the Making of the University” exhibit, researchers “…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.”

As for day-to-day duties, “…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.”

To learn more about the history of slavery at the University of North Carolina, explore the Slavery and the Making of the University exhibit linked to above.

To learn more about the history of Confederate monuments, and the ongoing debates around them, check out BackStory “Contested Landscapes” episode: