The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday February 4th

The Pit and The Pendulum: University icon marks social changes through time

<p>Bruce Cunningham, a 1970 UNC alum, sits in The Pit with the orientation packet he wrote that features the first mention of "The Pit"</p>
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Bruce Cunningham, a 1970 UNC alum, sits in The Pit with the orientation packet he wrote that features the first mention of "The Pit"

In the summer of 1969, two UNC seniors were preparing the program for the upcoming fall orientation. They stood on the second floor of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union staring down at the construction of what would soon become a university landmark. 

“Why don’t we call it The Pit?”

Bruce Cunningham and Phyllis Hicks, the pair that gave The Pit its trademark name, graduated the following May, having no idea that they had created a long-lasting tradition. 

“I thought it was going to be a flash-in-the-pan moniker, a bit of flash-in-the-pan irreverence,” Cunningham said. 

The 3-foot hole in the ground would go on to serve as the epicenter for student activity. Its name was solidified when The Daily Tar Heel ran an editorial praising the Orientation Committee for their creation.

“We sort of expect the officials in South Building to come up with something like the Frank Edward Jones Memorial Square when work on The Pit is finally completed,” the DTH wrote in 1968. “Personally, we like The Pit.”

The Pit was not the only new addition to campus that summer. With women only being admitted as first years to the University a few years before in 1963, the campus saw changing demographics. Hicks was a member of the second class of first years admitted into UNC and often was the only female in her classes. 

“In my freshman class, there were only about 200 freshmen women and the rest were men,” Hicks said. 

Hicks served as the women’s coordinator for the orientation planning. She said she joined because she saw a need for change in how women were treated on campus and viewed orientation and The Pit as an opportunity to work on that.

A primarily male UNC often held mixers with its largely female counterpart University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Often this process left the UNC first-year female students at a disadvantage when it came to finding dates. 

“The women would get off, and the men would line up and they would just pick and roll” Hicks said. “We freshmen women were kind of left behind. We couldn’t stand up to 45 buses.”

Hicks initiated a change where the women from Greensboro would be dropped off at the female residences halls and walk with the UNC women to meet the men coming up South Campus.  The mixers would be held either in The Pit or another indoor location and allowed both parties to make choices on pairs. 

The Pit and surrounding area became home to countless protests and student demonstrations over its first five years of existence.

“This was when the pendulum started to swing from all white, all male to integrated racially,” Cunningham said. “It was a transition probably unlike any five-year period in the history of the University”

A year after The Pit’s construction, it saw one of the largest student protests at the time. The U.S. involvement in Cambodia combined with the death of four students at Kent State University led thousands to join in a memorial protest through campus, according to a September 1970 issue of The Daily Tar Heel. 

“Not only was the three-week strike against the U.S. involvement in Cambodia the largest in number,” The Daily Tar Heel article said, “It also brought into the student protest students who had never dreamed they would march on a picket line, boycott classes for political reasons or chant anything at all like, ‘On Strike. Shut It Down.’”

The Pit was just a feature of a changing University. Around it rose new libraries and educational buildings, and the trees planted that summer still cast shade. Now, with talk of a new student union renovation in the works and a tense political climate, the former pit of red clay will once again witness a changing UNC.

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