On a July evening in 2020, the faculty campaign to rename UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hamilton Hall began with a cheeky act of protest. Professors who worked in the building gathered in a colleague’s second-floor office, opened the window, and hung out a banner printed for the occasion that read, “Pauli Murray Hall.”
The banner came down after a couple of weeks, mostly because the professor occupying the office needed to shut the window. By then, faculty in the four programs housed in the building—the departments of History, Sociology, and Political Science, and the Peace, War, & Defense Curriculum—had voted to send the name-change request to the chancellor. It was a unanimous vote, which rarely happens.
Their argument: Pauli Murray, a Durham native, had been denied admission to UNC in 1938 because she was Black. She went on to become an author, attorney, Episcopal priest, and renowned civil-rights activist. Hamilton Hall’s namesake, J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton, was an accomplished white historian who’d also been an influential white supremacist.
UNC is juggling so many controversies these days, it’s hard to keep up. But for years now, critics have objected to campus buildings honoring men they say are undeserving of honor. These include members of the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the North Carolina Democratic Party’s 1898-1900 white supremacy campaign.
Hamilton had been one of UNC’s own. In the first half of the 20th century, he held an endowed professorship and chaired the history department that now wants his name off its building. His claim to fame: In 1930, he founded UNC’s Southern Historical Collection. It’s located in Wilson Library, a five-minute walk from Hamilton Hall. Today, with 20 million documents—including plantation records, diaries, letters, speeches, and manuscripts—the collection is considered one of the world’s premier archives of U.S. Southern history.
Hamilton was born in 1878, so he didn’t fight for the Confederacy and never owned slaves, but he furthered the cause of white supremacy just the same. His tool was narrative: stories told through lectures, writings, and collections. He taught that Reconstruction had been an abomination, that the Ku Klux Klan had been necessary, and that Blacks were inferior to whites. His Southern Historical Collection “was dedicated to the glorification of the Confederate aristocracy while ignoring, minimizing, and even erasing the Black experience in the South,” Elaine Westbrooks, UNC’s Vice Provost for Libraries and University Librarian, has written.
Of more than 30 UNC building names with ties to white supremacy, Hamilton Hall is the newest. It’s a five-story structure with narrow windows, exposed concrete, and “the charm of a municipal government center,” as a History Department account describes it. It opened in 1972, well into the Civil Rights movement, near the end of the Vietnam War. At the time, the student newspaper pointed out that Hamilton had been a white supremacist. Trustees named the building for him anyway.
Since 2015, UNC has taken the names of five white supremacists off its campus buildings. Now, UNC’s Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward—a committee appointed by the chancellor—is recommending removing 10 more. Along with Hamilton’s, the names include those of a lawyer who killed a legal adversary in open court and a slaveowner who engaged in sex trafficking.
Trustees may consider the recommendations this semester. But with seven new members, the board is expected to lean more conservative. Approval is uncertain.
Of the 10 men now under scrutiny, Hamilton, who died in 1961, made some of the most significant contributions to UNC. In the early 20th century, his Southern Historical Collection helped lift the campus into the academic big leagues. The collection remains a required stop for any researcher studying the South.
At the same time, Hamilton and his archive illustrate a truth that grows more apparent as the campus tries to reckon with its past. Not only was UNC the product of a slaveholding society, but well into the last century, white supremacists held campus leadership roles, and were behind some of the university’s proudest achievements.
An archive is like a time-travel portal. In UNC’s Wilson Library, home to the Southern Historical Collection, I sat at a table under chandeliers, opened cardboard boxes full of Hamilton’s correspondence, and found myself transported to the early 1930s.
Here was J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton accepting speaking invitations, describing a 1,000-mile manuscript-collecting trek through South Carolina and Georgia, and declining publisher Alfred A. Knopf’s offer to write a history of the United States.
In his official photo, Hamilton, balding, bow-tied, and bespectacled, looks solemn. But his voice in these letters is genial, opinionated, occasionally catty. Writing to a friend about a UNC-CH president, for instance, he confides: “Just between us, the man doesn’t know any history, which is a considerable disadvantage when discussing an historical subject.”
Hamilton grew up in a well-connected Hillsborough family. He was hired by UNC in 1906 after earning his Ph.D. at Columbia University, where he’d studied under the famous William Dunning, who taught that post–Civil War Reconstruction was a plot to subjugate Southern whites. Dunning’s protégés, Hamilton included, were known as the Dunning School, and they dominated Southern history departments for the first half of the 20th century. If you’ve watched Gone with the Wind, with its elegant plantations and evil carpetbaggers, you’ll have a sense of the Dunning School’s world view.
At UNC, Hamilton wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions. In 1927, he wrote an outraged letter to President Harry Chase after African American civil-rights activist James Weldon Johnson spoke at Memorial Hall. “I do believe that the thing marks a perfectly unjustifiable disregard, on the part of those responsible, of the conviction of the people of the state, and of the whole South, that there must be no yielding on the question of the admission of the negro to equality,” he told Chase.
Hamilton published numerous works, including The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls, a hagiographic portrayal of the Confederate general that he co-wrote with his wife. His best-known book, Reconstruction in North Carolina, follows the Dunning script. He quotes a white newspaper editor describing newly freed Black men as “gibbering Africans,” sympathizes with the defeated white South, and justifies the Ku Klux Klan’s violence against Black people. “Its chief work in the State and in the South, in addition to the protection it furnished, was in restoring heart and courage to the white people who at first seemed overwhelmed by the immensity of their misfortunes,” he wrote.
But it was his collecting that won the most notice. In 1928, in a manifesto published by The Baltimore Sun, he announced his grand plan to collect from across the South “all kinds of records which reveal the life and thought of the masses of the people … anything, everything, which may in any way throw light upon the past and present.”
For years, Hamilton squirreled away potential donor information. A card catalogue containing some 20,000 donor index cards is still stored in Wilson Library. He made countless road trips around the South in his Ford, searching through attics, barns, trunks—wherever family papers might be. He was known to be adept at convincing families to hand over their diaries, letters, and ledgers, so much so that jealous archivists in other states bestowed a nickname on him: Ransack Hamilton.
People often assume that archives are neutral receptacles of history. Librarians say that’s not true. “If you come with a white supremacy lens, that’s going to determine how you build your collection,” University Librarian Westbrooks says.
This lens wasn’t unique to the Southern Historical Collection. It was common in state-run historical agencies across the South. “At its most fundamental level, the project of public history in the early twentieth century South was the archiving of white civilization,” UNC historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage wrote in his 2005 book The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory.
And that was certainly true of Hamilton’s collectorship. When he vowed to collect from “the masses of the people,” he meant white people, mostly elite landowners with connections to antebellum plantations.
By the mid-1930s, the Southern Historical Collection, stored in fireproof basement vaults in Wilson Library, contained a million documents. Its first curator, Hamilton’s assistant Elizabeth Cotten, was an outspoken member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In a 1934 Daily Tar Heel interview with Cotten about the collection, UNC’s student newspaper describes letters written by Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. But the discovery that most satisfied Cotten, the newspaper reports, were letters “between William Pettigrew and the Negro foreman of his plantation,” a correspondence she believed would show “the master-slave relations prior to the Civil War in a new and more favorable light.”
After an afternoon spent reading Hamilton’s correspondence, I came away impressed with his clout. Alfred A. Knopf wanted him to write histories. The Rockefeller Foundation sought his opinion on monographs it was funding. The United Daughters of the Confederacy called on him as an advisor for a Southern history bibliography. Requests for his time and expertise were plentiful.
One request in particular caught my eye. In 1934, The North Carolina Historical Commission was considering subjects for new historical highway markers. A commission official, hoping for suggestions, sent Hamilton a preliminary list that included “Wilmington Race Riots.” This was the term many white North Carolina leaders used until recently to describe the 1898 overthrow by whites of the multiracial government in Wilmington. In fact, it was a planned coup d’etat, not a riot, and it left dozens of Black people dead and marked the start of more than half a century of Jim Crow laws and Black voter suppression in North Carolina.
In his reply, Hamilton, one of the South’s most prominent historians, dismissed the marker idea, thus burying one of the darkest chapters in North Carolina’s history. “I don’t think you could locate the site of the race riots in Wilmington without putting markers from one end of Wilmington to the other,” he wrote, “and I question whether it is highly patriotic to put any memorial to it.”
It was 1998 before the Wilmington coup was noted with a state marker. Even then, it was called a riot.
For years now, UNC, like many universities, has faced calls from students and faculty to remove the names of white supremacists from campus buildings. Initially, in 2015, trustees agreed to rename one building, removing William Saunders’ name from Saunders Hall. It’s now Carolina Hall.
If any name-removal decision was an easy call, it was that one. Students had been protesting the building for years. In 1999, one group hung nooses to spotlight William Saunders’ legacy as leader of the state’s post–Civil War Ku Klux Klan, a secret group whose members had terrorized and murdered both Black people and white Republicans who supported Black equality.
In 1871, when Congress subpoenaed Saunders to testify about Klan activity in North Carolina, he invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 100 times. In 1920, when UNC trustees named the building, records show that they’d cited his Klan leadership as one reason for the honor.
When trustees removed Saunders’ name, they also hit pause, approving a 16-year moratorium on additional name removals. This was a blow to many on campus. But in June 2020, as protests over George Floyd’s murder roiled the nation, the trustees dropped the moratorium.
By then, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz had created the Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward to provide recommendations for reckoning with UNC’s past. One of its goals is to embed the university’s racial history in its teaching mission.
The commission is composed of faculty, staff, students, and community members. Its co-chairs are Pat Parker, a professor of communication, and James Leloudis, a history professor who’s also the Peter T. Grauer Associate Dean for Honors Carolina.
The commission has become the starting place for name-removal requests. Last year, following its recommendations, trustees agreed to remove names from three buildings: the Carr Building, Daniels Student Stores, and Aycock Residence Hall. For a fourth, Ruffin Residence Hall, which honored both Thomas Ruffin Sr. and Thomas Ruffin Jr., they voted to drop the father’s name but requested more information about the son.
Commission recommendations are backed by deeply researched dossiers. Taken together, they tell a history of white supremacy in North Carolina. They also reveal jaw-dropping details about some of the men UNC has chosen to honor.
Avery Residence Hall, for instance, which opened in 1958, was named for William Waightstill Avery, a Burke County lawyer, state representative, and enslaver of men, women, and children. Avery was a staunch secessionist who argued for amending the Constitution to forbid Congress from interfering with slave trafficking or abolishing slavery.
In 1851, Avery shot and killed a legal adversary in open court. A jury acquitted him of murder, noting that weeks earlier, Avery’s victim had beaten him and lashed him with a whip. Though Avery was a member of UNC’s Board of Trustees for 14 years, Leloudis, who did much of the research on the dossiers, didn’t find his name in the trustee minutes. Apparently, he didn’t attend the meetings.
Leloudis, who has studied North Carolina history since he was a UNC undergraduate in the 1970s, came to his current task already familiar with many of the men in question. But he says even he was shocked by what he discovered in the papers of Bryan Grimes Jr., the namesake of Grimes Residence Hall.
Grimes was a Confederate major-general and a member of one of North Carolina’s wealthiest slaveholding families. In a slave inventory from the mid-1850s, he “called attention to Sarah, whom he described as a ‘white negro’ and ‘fancy girl’—slavemongers’ terms for women they trafficked into concubinage and prostitution,” Leloudis writes in the Grimes dossier. Grimes bought Sarah in 1855 for $850, roughly $25,400 today, and changed her name to Fannie.
This document came from North Carolina state archives, where Leloudis had spent hours scanning Grimes’s papers. Later, he said, “I’m looking through the notes, and I go, I have the bill of sale for this woman. I have the receipt.”
Compared with Grimes, Hamilton doesn’t look so bad.
“Hamilton doesn’t have a sheet on,” Leloudis said. “He was writing books and teaching. I grant that much. But at the same time, let’s be careful about remembering that ideas do have consequences. He was in classrooms teaching generations of men who would go on to govern this state. That’s consequential.”
In 1956, five years after Hamilton retired from UNC, a historian named Kenneth Stampp published The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. The book refuted a prevalent Lost Cause narrative that cast slavery as benign, slaveowners as kind, and enslaved people as childlike beneficiaries of the arrangement. Today, the work is considered a turning point in America’s understanding of slavery.
Like researchers before and since, Stampp relied on the Southern Historical Collection. In his bibliography, he wrote that he’d consulted more than 50 of its collections of papers, particularly plantation records and journals.
This, ultimately, is the grand irony of J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton. He created the archives to preserve stories of the white-centered slaveholding South, only to have generations of scholars use it to dismantle the tropes of white supremacy.
Often, these scholars have relied on what archivists call collateral or accidental collecting. By scouring the letters, diaries, and ledgers of prominent Southern white families, they can piece together details about slavery and enslaved people.
The collection also provides evidence of white violence against Black people—details of the 1898 Wilmington coup, for instance—that perpetrators describe in their own words. “[Hamilton] never imagined the way it would be used,” UNC’s Brundage says.
One of the collection’s documents, for instance, bolstered activists’ arguments for removing Silent Sam, the Confederate statue that protestors ultimately toppled in 2018. In 2011, historian Adam Domby, then a UNC graduate student, wrote a letter to The Daily Tar Heel about a speech in the papers of Julian Carr that the prominent industrialist had delivered at the monument’s 1913 dedication. In it, Carr bragged about the time that he’d “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” because she had maligned a white woman.
Carr also credited Confederate soldiers with saving “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” Activists seized on the speech as proof that the statue wasn’t simply a memorial to fallen soldiers—it was also a monument to white supremacy.
It’s hard to overstate the Southern Historical Collection’s importance to scholars. And yet, as University Librarian Westbrooks explains in an appendix to Hamilton’s dossier, the collection is incomplete. Hamilton “did not believe that the lives of African Americans were relevant or that their family Bibles, letters, marriage certificates, or photographs were worthy of preservation for future generations,” she writes. The result: an archive with “gaps, silences, and limitations.”
Westbrooks, who in 2017 became the first Black woman to lead UNC libraries, recently unveiled a Reckoning Initiative that aims to go beyond diversity, focusing on “equity, inclusion, and social justice as a lens for all our work.”
The initiative redoubles ongoing efforts to fill the collection’s gaps. Since 2006, the Southern Historical Collection has had an African American collections and outreach archivist. The library has also launched a major effort to rewrite finding aids for antebellum materials. Finding aids are narrative summaries that tell researchers what a collection of papers includes; earlier summaries downplayed slavery and distorted the role that white southerners played in racial oppression. (An earlier finding aid for William Saunders’ papers, for example, didn’t mention his Ku Klux Klan affiliation.) New finding aids rectify these issues and include more information about enslaved people.
Acquisitions from families of color have also allowed the collection to tell new stories.
Take, for example, two rare documents in the papers of freedman Jonas Elias Pope and his family, including his son, Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope, who was a physician in Raleigh.
One, dated 1851, certifies Jonas Pope’s freedom. The second is his son’s 1902 voter registration card. Historians conjecture that because Jonas Pope had been a free Black man before the Civil War, Dr. Pope was permitted to vote, even after North Carolina’s white supremacist leaders adopted a Constitutional amendment that disenfranchised most Black men. Because Dr. Pope could vote, he was also able to run (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Raleigh in 1919, amid Jim Crow segregation.
“Those two documents are an entire microcosm of Raleigh history, North Carolina history, Southern history, American history,” collection archivist Biff Hollingsworth told me recently. “It just spirals out to all these different important things. Those two documents, I think, are the most important items in the Southern Historical Collection.”
The Pope Family Papers, acquired in 2002, illustrate what’s long been missing from the collection. While researchers can comb through the records of white families to piece together how white enslavers treated African Americans, Brundage says, ultimately, “you’re not able to create the daily lives, the aspirations and inner life” of Black people.
“There was a lot of stuff not collected, a good bit of which has probably been lost forever,” Leloudis says. He has struggled to find information about enslaved people who worked at UNC. “We might know their names, who owned them. The lived reality of human lives—that is really hard.”
Despite all we know about Hamilton, there’s also something missing from his historical record. UNC researchers can’t say how his name came to be on Hamilton Hall. Trustees would have approved it, but Leloudis has found no records. He knows of only one reference: In August 1972, a satirical student-opinion column in The Daily Tar Heel noted the building’s new name and the fact that Hamilton was a white supremacist.
The current process for considering the un-naming of Hamilton Hall is much better documented. It’s also complicated.
Hamilton’s dossier and nine others are now in the chancellor’s hands, along with a letter from commission members outlining the premises that guided their deliberations.
The men described in the dossiers weren’t merely “men of their times,” it says, but individuals who occupied power and influence. Labeling their actions as “conventional” at the time doesn’t absolve them of moral responsibility. And the names of the buildings in question aren’t representative of benign memorials, the letter says. The names chosen were efforts to deny that racial slavery and white supremacy were moral evils. Finally, removing a name doesn’t erase history. “Each new generation has a right and responsibility to make its own moral judgments, informed by history but not beholden to the past for the past’s sake,” the letter argues.
If Guskiewicz opts to move the recommendations forward, he may appoint an ad hoc committee of trustees, alumni, faculty, staff, and students to investigate claims against Hamilton and the other nine men. Like the commission, it too gives recommendations. Then the question would go to trustees. (Approving a new name would be a separate process.)
Timing is uncertain. The trustees meet in late September, then again in November. As of mid-August, according to a UNC spokesperson, Guskiewicz hadn’t created an ad hoc committee. Last year’s ad hoc committee submitted its report just a week after it was formed.
It’s hard to say how the Board of Trustees would vote. They voted 9-2 in favor of last year’s name removals, but now, seven of the board’s 13 members are new. With the exception of the student body president, trustees are appointed by the UNC System Board of Governors or the General Assembly, and some conservative legislators have expressed reluctance to take steps they believe would erase history. David Boliek, the new chairman of the trustees, didn’t respond to interview requests.
Leloudis, meanwhile, remains patient. “The optimistic side of me says we have to continue to make a case,” he says. “I suspect if we do it, and we teach, and we do what universities do, the vast majority of people who are skeptical or opposed—I think there’s a good likelihood they’ll come around.”
No one is lobbying publicly that Hamilton’s name should remain—including Hamilton’s descendants.
“The dossier accurately characterizes him as a white supremacist,” says Alfred Hamilton III, Hamilton’s great-grandson. “And I’m not saying he was a man of his time. He didn’t have political power, but he had influence. To be perfectly honest, his influence in history and how you tell it had negative impacts.”
Alfred, a Charlotte banker who’s serving as the Hamilton family’s contact with the university, is not taking a side. UNC leaders should consider the question, he says, and let the process play out. “I’m a process guy; I’m a hierarchy guy,” he says. “I will stand with the trustees and chancellor if they say they want to take the name off.”
Elaine Westbrooks and others at UNC have met with the Hamilton family in recent months to share information with them and seek their opinions. Alfred, a UNC alumnus, says he’s appreciative of that. “I feel like they’re working on something bigger than Hamilton Hall,” he says. “What I want to do is stand with the university … and say, What can I do to help heal?”
For Alfred, the family name on a building isn’t the most important issue. What matters is the Southern Historical Collection, the project to which his great-grandfather devoted much of his life.
“Our primary hope is that the collection evolves and grows into what it can be,” Alfred Hamilton says. “That’s what Elaine wants—that it become more inclusive, more representative of all Southerners. That’s what I want. I stand with her.”