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The College Servants

From its earliest days the university depended on the labor of individuals it termed "college servants." It is difficult to document the lives of these servants, but the items in this section provide some glimpses of them.

The use of the term servant does not mean that the college servants were not slaves, because antebellum southerners often referred to their household slaves as servants and to the slaves who worked in their yards, gardens, and fields as hands. Many, if not all, of the college servants who worked for the university prior to 1863 were slaves.

We have found nothing to indicate that the university ever bought slaves. However, it was a common practice for slaveholders to "hire out" their slaves to perform services for others. In this section is an item documenting two instances in which the university paid local citizens for the hire of slaves to work as college servants.

Arthur Stanley Link in his History of the Buildings at the University of North Carolina states that "it had been the custom for some of the wealthier students . . . to bring with them to college their personal slaves." This practice was apparently prevalent enough that the trustees in 1845 adopted an ordinance declaring that "no servant except the regular college servants shall be employed by the students to perform any of the ordinary duties of college servants."

Among the ordinary duties of the college servants were getting up before daylight and kindling fires in the students' rooms as well as keeping the dormitories and recitation halls clean. Students were charged a fee for servant hire, but it seems to have been permissible to pay extra for services beyond the servants' ordinary duties. According to Kemp P. Battle in his History of the University of North Carolina, "Few students blackened their own boots or carried their own parcels. The profits of such jobs went to the servants."

3 December 1844. Elisha Mitchell to David L. Swain.

3 December 1844. Elisha Mitchell to David L. Swain.

Professor Mitchell writes to President Swain proposing a blind ditch to convey water away from the foundation of South Building. He says "the college hands" could dig it in a week.

1848. "Account of Expenditures for the improvement of the College grounds."

This account, in Elisha Mitchell's handwriting, includes "Wages board clothing Etc of Sim Fred" and "Wages of Servant Edmund."

22 October 1851. David L. Swain to Charles Manly.

22 October 1851. David L. Swain to Charles Manly. 

President Swain suggests to Manly, secretary-treasurer of the Board of Trustees, that the college servants be given the task of cutting "old, decayed and decaying trees from our own lands" in order to supply the students with firewood.

4 September 1875. Volume 1:6.

"hire Wilson Swain as College servant"

4 September 1875. Volume 1:6.

"Mr. Mickle was authorized to hire Wilson Swain [later Caldwell] as College
servant at $15 per month" [first meeting after the reopening of the university].

1 June 1885. Volume 1:6.

"Wilson Caldwell ... employed to work in the campus"

 1 June 1885. Volume 1:6.

"On motion of Prof. Holmes Wilson Caldwell is to be employed to work in the
campus until the 1st of Sept."

Inscription on the monument at the grave of Wilson Caldwell, Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.

Wilson Caldwell's Grave

Inscription on the First Caldwell Monument, 1936.

After the Class of 1891 arranged to have the old Caldwell Monument placed over the grave of Wilson Caldwell, they placed a marble stone at its base with the inscription seen here. The inscription pays tribute not only to Wilson Caldwell but to longtime college servants November Caldwell (Wilson's father), David Barham, and Henry Smith. Image from the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.

30 October 1885. Volume 1:7.

"Committee on arranging duties of servants reported that the dormitories are now divided equally and allotted to Charles, Eli & Bill. John assigned Profs. Venable & Holmes' lecture rooms and Laboratories and the Gymnasium. Charles, in addition to dormitories, assigned Pres[iden]t's lecture room and reading room & Library and the other recitation rooms divided between Eli & Bill. Committee on Servants requested to make arrangements for the emptying of the slops & c."

8 December 1885. Volume 1:7.

"head college servant"

8 December 1885. Volume 1:7.

"Pres[iden]t reported that Wilson Caldwell had been employed as head college servant at $20.00 per month."

Sketch of the Life and Character of Wilson Caldwell.

Battle, Kemp P. Sketch of the Life and Character of Wilson Caldwell. Chapel Hill, NC: University Press Co. Print., 1895. 

Wilson Caldwell was born into slavery but lived to experience the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. He was the son of November Caldwell, who had been President Joseph Caldwell's coachman, and Rosa Burgess, a slave of President Swain. In 1853, when he was twelve years old, he began working for Thomas Paxton, the English gardener who had been hired to beautify the campus. After about eight years, according to Battle, "he was promoted to be a waiter" in the laboratories, dormitories, and lecture halls. He held this position until 1869, when the new Board of Trustees cut his wages. Resigning in "disgust," he obtained a position as head of "a free school for colored children in Chapel Hill." When the university reopened in 1875 he "was offered and accepted his old position, with the duties and responsibilities, although not with the name, of janitor." In 1884 he left the university briefly and moved to Durham, hoping to improve his wages. But he came back to Chapel Hill, informing Battle that "Durham is not a place for a literary man." (North Carolina Collection, CpB C145b).