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Slaves and Servants
Erika Lindemann


The lives of University students were made comfortable by a group of people whom students encountered daily but rarely wrote about—the servants. Most servants were slaves. They hauled water to students' rooms every day and on cold mornings built fires in each fireplace before dawn. They cooked for students and did their laundry. They accompanied students to school and drove carriages back home. They maintained the boarding houses and the homes of faculty members. They cleaned campus buildings, which they also had helped to build. They built the rock walls enclosing the grounds. Antebellum students rarely wrote about the slaves with whom they came in daily contact; when they did, they expressed either genuine affection for them or a coldness offensive to modern readers.
Some faculty members owned slaves, and a majority of students came from slave-holding families. The University also employed slaves, hiring their time from their masters so that they could work on the campus. The awful reality of slavery is perhaps most apparent in reading newspapers of the period, which routinely advertised slaves for sale or offered rewards for their return.1 Census records reveal that the slave population for Orange County, NC, site of the University, peaked in 1830, when slaves numbered 7,339 and whites, 15,918 ( Lefler and Wager 96). Orange County also had the largest slave population of any county in the North Carolina Piedmont, though the slaves were widely dispersed on only a few large plantations.
Most of the slaves in Chapel Hill were household servants or campus laborers. Some were well known in the village. Benny Booth had waited on James Knox Polk when he was a student. He was still working at the University thirty years later when President Polk revisited the campus in 1847. Nicknamed "Brick Top," Booth made extra money by allowing students to crack boards over his head (Henderson 95; Russell, These Old Stone Walls 78). "Davidge [1791-1872], popularly called 'Dr. November,' was the carriage driver for Dr. Joseph Caldwell of Chapel Hill for many years. He boasted that he had blacked boots for senators, made beds for governors, and even waited on President James K. Polk " ( Lefler and Wager 98). Dave Barham , who hired his time from his master to work for Elisha Mitchell , was a dignified man, "often called upon to attend visiting celebrities" (Russell, These Old Stone Walls 78). A runaway slave named James, however, "who for the last four years attended Chapel Hill in the capacity of college servant" (quoted in Lefler and Wager 103) clearly did not regard working for the University a privilege. Perhaps the best known slave of the antebellum period was George Moses Horton , who paid his master to be allowed to work on campus. Having taught himself to read and write, Horton composed poems to sell to students and occasionally to publish in local newspapers.
Prior to 1830 many Chapel Hillians had belonged to the American Colonization Society, a national organization founded in 1816 to relocate slaves to Liberia. Some also were members of the North Carolina Manumission Society, founded by Quakers in the same year to urge whites to free their slaves. By the late 1820s abolitionist fervor and Denmark Vesey's organized rebellion in Charleston in 1822 had made North Carolinians increasingly nervous about the possibility of slave insurrections in the state. In 1830 North Carolina legislators enacted a law forbidding "all persons from teaching slaves to read and write, the use of figures excepted" (Franklin 68). Few people were ever brought to trial for violating this law, and many southerners persisted in believing that slaves should be taught to read the Bible and other religious materials (Cornelius 36). But such laws and the so-called "Free Negro Code," which curtailed the privileges of African-Americans who had won their freedom, had important symbolic value. They offered the appearance of protection to whites who felt increasingly threatened by their slaves. In 1831 the Nat Turner rebellion in neighboring Virginia raised such concerns among whites for their own safety that the University organized a student militia.
North Carolina's 1835 constitutional convention curtailed the freedoms formerly enjoyed by free blacks. The convention resulted primarily from dissatisfaction with the way legislative representatives were chosen. Extensive constitutional amendments fixed the membership of the state's senate and house and determined representation based on numbers of voters, instead of on property values. For the first time in North Carolina's history, the people, not the legislature, would elect the governor, who would serve a two-year term. Religious qualifications for holding public office were broadened so that Catholics as well as Protestants could stand for election. But apart from these worthy improvements, the 1835 amendments also abolished the right of free blacks to vote, thereby disenfranchising over 20,000 people.2
For most students at the University, the "slavery question" was not yet the divisive issue it would become a decade or two later. William Gaston's anti-slavery speech at the 1832 Commencement was favorably received. When the Dialectic Society debated the topic "Ought slavery to be abolished?" on October 22, 1834, the question was decided in the affirmative. Students who wrote about politics in the 1830s were less concerned with slavery than with defining the relationship of the states to the Federal government. They argued, for example, that Texas should not be annexed to the Union because the action would unbalance the number of slave and free states. They disagreed with South Carolinians who nullified the 1832 Federal tariff, rejecting John C. Calhoun's position that states had a right to nullify Federal laws that were not in the state's best interests. Recognizing in the nullification controversy a principle supporting a state's "right" to secede from the Union, most North Carolina students opposed secession. Questions about slavery were sometimes expressed in this secessionist context, as when Dialectic Society members debated the question "Should the slave-holding states secede from the non-slaveholding?" No, the Dis decided on March 11, 1837. Students of the 1830s who favored abolition and the preservation of the Union did not seem to recognize slavery as a moral issue. When considering such questions as "Would the education of slaves have a tendency to promote domestic comfort?" or "Is slavery an evil morally or politically?" Dialectic Society members answered no.3

Endnotes:

1. In the June 23, 1837, issue of the Hillsborough Recorder, for example, James Phillips advertised for sale a negro woman and four children. The Hillsborough Recorder of June 25, 1831, offered a $10 reward for the return of a runaway slave named Bob.

2. See John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943). On the constitutional convention of 1835, see Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 267-81.

3. Dialectic Society minutes record that the question "Ought the Tariff be repealed?" was decided in the negative on January 25, 1832 (Vol. 7, UA). "Would a division of the Union be beneficial?" was decided in the negative on November 1, 1834; "Should Texas be annexed to the Union?" was decided in the negative on June 21, 1837; "Would the education of slaves have a tendency to promote domestic comfort?" was decided in the negative on February 15, 1837; and "Is slavery an evil morally or politically?" was decided in the negative on February 23, 1838 (Vol. 8, UA). Some individual students, of course, would have disagreed with the outcomes of these debates and also would have dissented from views discussed here as characteristic of a majority of students.