Slavery, stolen property and the founding investments of UNC

An August demonstration highlighting the names of enslavers and avowed white supremacists for whom buildings are named at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Been following the ongoing conversation about the history of slavery and white supremacy at UNC-Chapel Hill?  Then the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Tarheel, has a thoroughly researched piece that is worth your time this week.

Reporter Charlie McGee’s “Beyond forced labor: How UNC made its founding investments on slavery, stolen property” gets at the foundational roots of slavery and white supremacy at the school.

From the piece:

Historians cite the University’s primary avenues of funding over the first decades of its existence as early proof of its profiting from slavery. This funding strategy included the Board of Trustees obtaining and trading slaves throughout the region.

When UNC was chartered in 1789 as North Carolina’s first university, the state’s congressional body didn’t appropriate any funds toward its development.

Instead, the Trustees would fund UNC through two revenue streams, as defined by a 1789 congressional bill: they would be given money that was “due and owing” to North Carolina under certain parameters up to 1783, and they would acquire all property “escheated” to the state from that point forward.

Escheated property was property that belonged to an owner who died without an heir or whose citizenship status didn’t permit them to own it.

In those cases, ownership of the property would be transferred to UNC. Often, the University obtained legal title to ownership of enslaved people and sold them for cash.

The Trustees appointed attorneys throughout the state “to sue for, recover, and take into possession” all property that could potentially be escheated to UNC, according to Blackwell Robinson’s mid-1950s book, “The History of Escheats.”

While numerous cases of UNC pursuing and selling enslaved people are documented in various archives, the full extent of the University’s activity in this area is unknown.

In one case, which former UNC President Kemp Battle wrote about in the early 1900s, a free Black man had a daughter who was “the slave of another” until he bought the rights to ownership of her. Sometime after that, the daughter had her own son.

But when her father died without a rightful heir, “His child and grandchild, being his personal property, became the property of the University.” The Trustees then ordered the two to be sold, a decision that Battle said they seemed to experience no difficulty in deciding.

“It must be remembered that slaves were considered to be as a rule in a better condition than free negroes,” Battle wrote.

Between 1790 and 1840, UNC received an estimated $4 million in current-day value through escheated properties, which was 25.7 percent of its total revenue over that period and more money than it received through tuition fees. Those numbers were reported to the legislature by former Gov. Edward Dudley, according to Robinson’s “Escheats,” though Dudley admitted that it was “impossible … to ascertain and designate, at present, the various kinds of property received by the Trustees since 1789.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guzkiewicz recently announced the launch of the university’s Commission on History, Race and Reckoning and several of the school’s trustees have said they are open to a new conversation about removing the names of enslavers and avowed white supremacists from places of honor on the campus.


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