“I do not know who Hinton James is,” Janey Krehnbrink, a first-year student majoring in pharmacy, said. “I guess I know he was an important figure at UNC at some point if a building is named after him, but in terms of what he did for the University, I’m not entirely sure.”
About one month after the opening of the University in 1795, James arrived to campus on Feb. 12 and became the first student to enroll. He came from a prosperous family in what is now known as Pender County, University Archivist Nicholas Graham said.
Graham said not much is known about James' time at UNC, but there is one letter he wrote in 1838 that provides some insight. In the letter, James talked about professors and other students — and made one comment concerning a dress code, which Graham said didn't exist.
By James’ report, he was the only student on campus for at least a couple of weeks.
Legend has it he traveled to UNC on foot all the way from his home in Wilmington, N.C., though Graham said this has not yet been confirmed.
“He does not, in the letter, talk about how he got to campus, and so I still think there’s no definitive evidence that he walked,” Graham said. “I think that’s a legend that started in the 20th century. However he got here, it would’ve been a difficult journey and impressive.”
Graham said he thinks it is important that UNC celebrates a day in James’ honor because his arrival to campus marked the beginning of the University.
Alumni have been honoring James for quite some time now. According to the Carolina Alumni Review digital archive, about 40 alumni gathered for dinner in London in March 1945 to dedicate Feb. 12 as Hinton James Day.
McCain Kerr, a senior majoring in history, was the second student to dress up as Hinton James for the day this year.
He was in the Pit from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and helped host Trivia in the Pit with Carolina's Firsts.
“As times have changed, the best way to embrace the University in all of her beauty is to adapt to all Carolina firsts,” he said in character. “So, on Hinton James Day, we celebrate the first African American student, first female student, all Chapel Hill firsts that have been positive for the University.”