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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heel meaning evolved from derogatory to proud

UNC’s identity and symbol — the Tar Heel — originated before the University was even founded.

Before it became what UNC students called themselves, it was what North Carolinians called themselves. The term has evolved since its creation — and it wasn’t always shouted proudly.

The term “Tar Heel” came to be used as a name for the poor white and black naval store workers in the mid-19th century, who, due to working with waterproofing-materials such as rosin and tar, walked around with tar on their heels.

Because many of the people working in the naval stores at this time were enslaved, being called a “Tar Heel” was something derogatory, history professor Harry Watson said.

“Calling someone a Tar Heel meant that they were like a slave,” Watson said. “It was an insult about class and an insult about race.”

During the Civil War, Virginia soldiers would pick fights with North Carolina soldiers by calling them Tar Heels, Watson said. But toward the middle of the war, this shifted.

While addressing the North Carolina troops, North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance addressed them not as “fellow soldiers,” but as “fellow Tar Heels.”

“That gave it a respectability, and it became one of those derogatory terms that people embrace,” Watson said.

“Tar Heel” became more commonly used by North Carolinians after this, and was used with pride, said Cecelia Moore, UNC campus historian.

“This is one of those terms that North Carolinians then just turned around to use as a point of pride,” she said. “They rejected it as a derogatory term.”

UNC adopted the term in the 1890s, a few decades after the end of the Civil War. When UNC began competing in intercollegiate sports with baseball and football in the late 19th century, they called themselves the “Tar Heels,” Nick Graham, university archivist said.

The late 19th century was when UNC adopted its blue and white colors, Graham said, connecting the colors with the Tar Heel symbol.

Rameses became UNC’s mascot in 1924, Moore said, when one of the head cheerleaders decided the Tar Heels needed a mascot. Favorite football player of the time, Jack Merritt, was known as the “Battering Ram,” so the ram was named UNC’s mascot.

Graham said it was interesting that UNC has a unique symbol in the Tar Heel— unlike other schools that only have animal mascots.

“This one is distinctive to North Carolina and is applied to all North Carolinians, so it’s a natural symbol for the University to adopt,” he said.

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