CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In the early decades of the University of North Carolina (search), servants kindled fires in students' rooms and cut wood to fuel stoves. The 216-year-old school, which takes pride in being the nation's oldest public university, is now airing a shameful side of its past — those servants were slaves.
The university is using records and photographs that archivists have uncovered to present a fuller story of the school's beginnings.
"This university was built by slaves (search) and free blacks," said Chancellor James Moeser. "We need to be candid about that, acknowledge their contributions."
The University of North Carolina, chartered in 1789, is among several universities, banks and financial firms that have tried to set the record straight on their historical ties to the slave trade.
North Carolina archivists were researching the university's first 100 years when they found records that confirmed slaves helped construct campus buildings. Other records showed that both faculty and university board members owned slaves.
Some of that research is on display in "Slavery and the Making of the University: Celebrating Our Unsung Heroes, Bond and Free." The on-campus exhibit includes photographs, letters and documents such as bills of sale for slaves.
In one letter, the wife of the school's first law professor wrote her husband that university President David Lowry Swain wanted to hire "Harry" for work. She pledged she would "hire Harry out whenever I can."
The exhibit is among several recent efforts by the university to acknowledge its past links to slavery. It offers a class on the history of blacks at the school, and a monument honoring the slaves and free blacks who helped build the school was installed in May.
Other universities that have shed light on their historical ties to slavery include the University of Alabama, where the faculty senate last year apologized to the descendants of slaves who were owned by faculty members or who worked on campus in the years before the Civil War (search). The school also erected a marker near the graves of two slaves on campus.
A committee at Brown University in Rhode Island is examining the school's past ties to the slave trade and recommending whether and how the college should take responsibility. A report on the findings is due by the end of the fall semester.
"We clearly do live in a society that has a persistent pattern of racial disparity and I think most people would agree that that has something to do with our history," said James Campbell, a history professor at Brown and the chairman of the committee.
"If you care about that pattern of disparity, then it seems to me one of the things that is incumbent on you is to try to find out how we got here," Campbell said
Just how many schools have ties to the slave trade remains unknown, since so much information has been concealed, said Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree. But he believes those found to have had links to slavery should pay reparations.
Some banks and financial services firms have made donations after conducting investigations into their own past ties to slavery. Often the research in those case was prompted by local governments demanding an accounting.
Charlotte-based Wachovia Corp. committed an undisclosed sum to support black history education in June, a few days after announcing that two of its predecessor banks owned slaves. Also this year, New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. gave $5 million to support college scholarships for black students in Louisiana, where two of its predecessor banks received thousands of slaves as collateral.
The researchers examining the University of North Carolina's past say they hope the new exhibit in just the beginning of a renewed effort to create a more complete understanding of the school's early years.
"I think it is important that we do this since we are the oldest university," said Susan Ballinger, assistant university archivist. "The chancellor has said over and over again that it's critical for the university to be honest about its past. He wants our history told fully, warts and all."