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The Daily Tar Heel

A walkthrough of the history of UNC and Chapel Hill

Old East, as pictured on June 6, 2021, is the oldest state university building in the nation.

Many students come to UNC knowing about the basketball team's storied history, and their knowledge of Chapel Hill might not extend very far beyond Franklin Street's bars and restaurants.

But as the oldest public university in the nation, UNC — and the town that was created because of it — has a rich history that spans over two centuries.

From the founding to the civil rights movement to recent tragedies, here's a timeline of some major events that have happened at the University and in the Chapel Hill area in the past 232 years that students should know about.

1789: The North Carolina General Assembly chartered the University and established the Board of Trustees to oversee the institution.

1792: A Board of Trustees committee unanimously selected what is now Chapel Hill as the location for the University.

1793: Chapel Hill was officially founded and named after New Hope Chapel, which was situated atop a hill at the intersection where The Carolina Inn stands today. Construction began on Old East, the oldest public university building in the country, on Oct. 12. — which UNC now celebrates annually as University Day.

1795: UNC's first student, Hinton James, arrived on campus on Jan. 15, rendering UNC the oldest state university in the country. A South Campus dorm, nicknamed HoJo, is named in his honor.

1797: Self-taught poet George Moses Horton was born into slavery in Chatham County. While delivering produce around town, Horton was encouraged by UNC students and faculty to teach himself to read and write. He became a published poet in the 1830s. Horton Residence Hall is named after him.

1819: The North Carolina General Assembly established a municipal government in Chapel Hill, including a board of commissioners elected by local landowners.

1851: The General Assembly incorporated the Town of Chapel Hill on Jan. 29. 

1865: Union troops occupied Chapel Hill on April 16. A few months later, Ellie Swain — the daughter of UNC President David Swain — married a Union general.

1869: H.B. Guthrie became the first mayor of Chapel Hill and held this position until 1872.

1871: UNC shut down for four years due to a lack of funding from the state government.

1882: Five women enrolled at UNC as juniors and seniors, becoming the first female students to attend the University. Women were still not allowed to enter as first-years or sophomores during this time.

1893: A small, tabloid-sized newspaper, which would later become The Daily Tar Heel, was first published on Feb. 23. The organization has now been fiscally and editorially independent from the University for almost three decades, and it is the largest community newspaper in the area.

1897: The Old Well, previously the main water source for Old East and Old West residence halls, was renovated to resemble the Temple of Love at the Palace of Versailles. The same year, the Carolina Glee Club performed UNC's alma mater, “Hark the Sound,” for the first time.

1902: Chapel Hill Public School, known today as Chapel Hill High, opened for white students behind the present-day location of The Carolina Inn.

1911: Carrboro was incorporated under the name “Venable,” after UNC President Francis Preston Venable. Two years later, white supremacist Julian Shakespeare Carr agreed to provide electricity to the area from his cotton mill in exchange for the town being renamed after him.

1913: The Confederate monument known as "Silent Sam" was dedicated in McCorkle Place on UNC's campus. Carr, who was a leader of the United Confederate Veterans in North Carolina, gave a speech at the dedication, in which he bragged about whipping a Black woman near the University. 

1918: The influenza pandemic spread to North Carolina. Within a three-month period, UNC President Edward Kidder Graham and his successor, Marvin Stacy, both died from pneumonia after being infected with the flu. By the time the pandemic began to wind down in the spring of 1919, over 500 students had been treated in the infirmary, and seven had died following complications with the illness.

1931: The Bell Tower was dedicated and rung for the first time.

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1949: Morehead Planetarium opened. It later became a training ground for over 60 astronauts, including the three members of the Apollo 11 mission: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins.

1951: On March 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that UNC must admit Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, J. Kenneth Lee, Floyd McKissick and James Robert Walker to the School of Law. The five men were the first Black students enrolled at the University.

1955: A year after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed all segregation in public schools, federal courts ordered the University to admit Black undergraduate students. The first three — LeRoy Frasier, Ralph Frasier and John Lewis Brandon — enrolled in the fall.

1960: Nine students — now known as the Chapel Hill Nine — from the all-Black Lincoln High School participated in a sit-in at Colonial Drug on Feb. 28 to protest segregation. In May, Martin Luther King Jr. visited the town and gave a speech at University Baptist Church. 

1963: Karen Parker became the first Black female undergraduate student to enroll at UNC-Chapel Hill when she transferred from UNC-Greensboro — then a women's college — to pursue a degree in journalism.

1966: Lincoln High School closed, and Chapel Hill High reopened in a new location as an integrated school.

1969: Lenoir Dining Hall employees began to strike on Feb. 23 after suggestions to improve their working conditions were ignored. In October of that year, nearly 7,000 UNC students — 60 percent of the student body — boycotted classes as part of a nationwide movement protesting for the end of the Vietnam War.

1970: James Lewis Cates, a Black Chapel Hill resident, was killed in the Pit on Nov. 21 by members of a white supremacist biker gang, who were found not guilty in the murder trial. Fifty years later, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced the launch of a year-long study of the murder by a committee of researchers, members of the Cates family and officials from the Town of Chapel Hill.

1974: Chapel Hill Transit was established on Aug. 1.

1987: Joe Herzenberg was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council, becoming the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina.

1995: Mike Nelson was elected as mayor of Carrboro, making him the first openly gay mayor in the state.

2003: James Taylor Bridge was dedicated to the five-time Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter who wrote “Carolina in My Mind.” The a cappella group the Clef Hangers performs the song at Commencement each year.

2004: The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History opened at UNC. It began as a 900-square-foot space in the Student Union in 1988, and students and community members called on the University to build a free-standing center for years.

2008: UNC Student Body President Eve Carson was kidnapped and murdered on March 5. UNC dedicated the Eve Carson Memorial Garden in 2010 in memory of students who died while enrolled at the University.

2012: Faith Hedgepeth, a junior at UNC, was murdered in her off-campus apartment on Sept. 7. Almost nine years later, her murder remains unsolved. Hedgepeth was a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe and dreamed of becoming a pediatrician. The Faith Hedgepeth Memorial Scholarship has assisted several Native American women from North Carolina tribes earn a higher education.

2015: Yusor Abu-Salha, her husband Deah Barakat and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were shot and killed at their Chapel Hill home on Feb. 10. Barakat was a dental student at the Adams School of Dentistry, and Yusor also planned to attend. The school holds an annual free clinic to honor them. In 2018, the Town of Chapel Hill officially declared Feb. 10 Our Three Winners Day.

2018: Protesters pulled down Silent Sam the night before the first day of classes for the fall semester.

2020: The Town of Chapel Hill shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 13, canceling all public events and closing public facilities. UNC shifted to remote learning for the rest of the academic year, then reopened in the fall only to move all classes online again after one week.

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