The University of North Carolina (UNC) dominates the town of Chapel Hill in a way that I’ve never experienced in any other place. It’s not only because the university’s 700+ acre campus is mid-town, or that thousands of students overrun its streets. In Chapel Hill, all roads lead to UNC (figuratively, if not literally). The city buses are Carolina blue, its medevac helicopters are Carolina blue, and even its fire engines are Carolina blue.
UNC was the first public university in the US to enroll students (in 1795), giving it a claim to the title of the oldest public university in America. Two other schools also claim the title: the College of William and Mary (which has the oldest founding date of 1693, but was a private school in the beginning and didn’t become public until 1906) and the University of Georgia (which received the first charter in 1785 but didn’t begin admitting students until 1801). Private is not public and a college is not a college until it has students, so I’m siding with UNC.
Duke’s campus, with its gothic spires and old world airs, is famous for its beauty. For my money, though, I much preferred UNC. And my assessment had nothing to do with the fact that much of the campus is built in my favorite style of architecture (Federal).
On our way to dinner the first night we were there, we met Lisa at the student union, and she took us through the older parts of campus and across McCorkle Place (aka the northern quad). The oldest UNC buildings flank McCorkle Place. Also there: the Old Well drinking fountain (photo above), originally the sole water supply for the campus and now the symbol of the university.
Buried in the middle of the quad (along with his wife and step-son), under a marble obelisk is Joseph Caldwell, the first president of UNC. The marble obelisk replaced a sandstone version that had been the original monument to Caldwell. After it was replaced, the sandstone monument was taken to the UNC cemetery and put on the grave of Wilson Caldwell, who had started life as the son of Joseph Caldwell’s slave and was himself a slave to David Swain, the second president of UNC. Wilson Caldwell, as a leader of the African American community in Chapel Hill, was part of the delegation (along with Swain) sent to surrender Chapel Hill to the Union and ask that the town/university not be destroyed. It wasn’t. That and fifty years of service to UNC wasn’t enough to get him his own monument, but he did get the hand-me-down from Joseph Caldwell.
Near the Caldwell monument is Silent Sam, a statue of a Confederate soldier erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. Of course, there’s quite a bit of controversy over a statue honoring anything Confederate in the middle of campus and there’s been an ongoing campaign to remove him.
Also controversial: a marble and brass table commissioned by the Class of 2002 and inscribed, “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.” People complain that it’s in the shadow of Silent Sam. People complain that its use as a table is disrespectful. People complain that the figures are too small. People just complain.
The town was built to serve the University and the University trustee’s developed the town around the campus. So the University truly is in the middle of town. The town’s main commercial road is Franklin Street, which boarders the campus to the north. On that first evening, after our quick tour of campus, we took a walk — down Franklin past the restaurants, shops and student bars — to the town of Carrboro. Remember what I told you about the UNC/Duke rivalry?
We had several excellent meals during our visit. In Carrboro, we had dinner at the Spotted Dog. Lisa is a vegetarian and half of the Spotted Dog’s offerings are vegetarian. I had a great veggie burger. The next night, we had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant on Franklin Street called Lime and Basil, then went up the street for frozen yogurt at the Yogurt Pump. Lime and Basil’s vegetarian pho was to die for.
After dinner in Carrboro that first night, we headed back to Chapel Hill on a public bus. Chapel Hill Transit has free buses traveling on fixed routes, including up and down Franklin Street. We rode the bus from Carrboro back to campus, left Lisa there, and caught a taxi back to the hotel.
We chatted with our taxi driver and noticed a not-Southern accent. We asked where he was from. “New York.” What was he doing in Chapel Hill?
He had decided he needed a change, he told us. So he got a map of the US, closed his eyes, whirled the map around, and put his finger down. He was moving to wherever his finger landed. It landed on Chapel Hill.
Did he like it? He loved it. The people are so nice and polite. Very not-New York (his opinion, not mine — I’ve always had wonderful experiences with New York and New Yorkers).
When I got home, I tried the same thing and came up with…Grand Rapids, Michigan. Uh…no. I’m sure Michigan is a lovely place — it’s just that I’m a warm weather person.
I loved Chapel Hill, though, and will be dragging Mr. History Tourist down in the near future, on one of our pre-retirement scoping trips.