Remembering UNC’s African-American history with the Black & Blue Tour

By Jessica Snouwaert

The wooden door of the UNC-Chapel Hill Visitors Center flings open. Two college-age women scurry in and beeline their way through the people milling about the marble foyer.

“Professor Porter, we’re coming on your tour today,” one of the young women, Jasmine Pourtaheri, says as they approach a jovial-looking man standing near the front desk.

“I’m glad you could make it,” Porter says. “We’ll start the tour soon, so let me get everyone outside.” Jasmine nods and blends into the crowd.

“Welcome everyone to the Black & Blue Tour Part II,” Porter says. “We’re going to get started, so let’s head outside.”

He marches across the foyer, leading the crowd out into the gray February afternoon.

The crowd follows.

They all stop at the edge of McCorkle Place when he points to a white, marble obelisk a dozen yards away. He explains some of the history about the obelisk, noting that it marks the grave of UNC’s first president, Joseph Caldwell.

“I won’t go into too much detail about that now,” he says, “But keep it in mind for later on in the tour.”

He marches onward, attendees in tow, and calls back, “In spite of my Southern accent I walk like a New Yorker.”

Jasmine glances at the other young woman with her and giggles. She knows this is not going to be an average tour.

Viewing UNC’s history from a different angle

The Black & Blue Tour focuses on African-American history at UNC.

Robert Porter, a lecturer in African, African American and Diaspora Studies (AAAD), started leading the tour after its founder, AAAD professor Tim McMillan, resigned in 2015.

Black & Blue is one of the most popular tours given by the UNC Visitors Center as a part of the Priceless Gem tour series. The series of walking tours aim to give attendees an in-depth look at UNC’s history with the insight of an expert guide.

“It’s an interesting way to view UNC’s history from kind of a different angle,” Lindsey Waldenberg, manager of the UNC Visitors Center said. “It’s always interesting to take a look at the past through different lenses, so I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of it.”

But much of the tour’s vibrancy is thanks to Porter’s satire of what he calls “the typical American tour.”

“I’ve learned more about how to do this tour by looking at what all the tours I’ve been on do wrong,” Porter said. “Have I really learned anything about how to do a tour right from the ones I’ve been on? Huh, not so much.”

Porter has attended hundreds of tours, many of which he says treat African-American history as a sidebar, and deemphasize that fact that African-American history is American history.

Porter’s tour seeks to set the record straight. He wants attendees to walk away with a profound appreciation for African-American History.

As a child, Porter was enthralled by this history. When most children idolized Batman, Superman and Spiderman, Porter saw Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln.

Porter found inspiration in the stories of his heroes – the heroes who worked to make their lives better in the face of adversity.

“They had difficult lives and they went through a lot of hellish things to be sure, but they made their time on earth count,” Porter said. “They made a difference.”

Now he tries to make a difference by sharing the stories of the history of UNC’s campus, Chapel Hill and North Carolina. Stories just like the ones he learned as a child.

“Uncovered history that has not been told”

Leading the pack, Porter makes his way to the School of Government. The attendees trail behind down the uneven sidewalk.

Seteena Turner, a master’s student at UNC and staff member, walks amid a clump of her colleagues from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. The cohort decided to attend the Black & Blue Tour together as an office outing.

They chatter about the stops made on the tour so far: a controversial sculpture hidden behind Manning Hall, the dedication of the student stores to a racist publisher, the Lenoir food workers strike and student protests for a Black cultural center.

“There’s a lot of uncovered history that has not been told,” Turner said. “I’m grateful there’s a place and space for it to be told.”

It is a history speckled with strife.

As the tour makes its way into the inner reaches of the basement in the School of Government the chatter falls to a hush when Porter stops in the middle of a sideline hallway.

“Time to catch up and fill this massive hole in your education,” says Porter, gesturing to the mural that extends the rest of the wall’s length.

Everyone gazes at the mural.

It is a scene of influential African Americans from North Carolina sitting at a diner counter. Harriet Jacobs. David Richmond. Ella Baker.

Some hold cups of coffee. Others read newspapers.

All are giants in American history, Porter says. He then muses to the group that everyone must have learned about them in school, right?

But in truth many of their stories have been left out of the public school curriculum.

Remembered icons

The cemetery is wedged into a square tenth of a mile plot.

Yellow, white and pink flowers rest on proud slabs of granite. Other craggy headstones sink into the ground with indecipherable names. Some have no name at all.

Porter stops at various graves noting the lives of those who lie beneath. Members of the tour listen attentively, a few scrawl furiously into notebooks.

But when the tour reaches the western end of the cemetery their pens stop.

Among the pines a few fieldstones lie in the grass.

Porter explains that this end of the cemetery was the African-American section. Many of the fieldstones used to mark graves were moved or destroyed as tailgaters would park their cars in the grass, leaving many graves unmarked.

“This is devastating,” says Turner, looking across the field void of gravestones.

But out among the remnants of burial markers standing alone is an obelisk and a plaque.

The sandstone obelisk is stained by time with moss and lichen growing around its edges. It once marked the grave of Joseph Caldwell, the first president of the university.

Now it marks the grave of Wilson Caldwell.

Wilson Caldwell was born a slave to University President David Swain. Once emancipated, he became a justice of the peace, town commissioner and head of the campus workforce.

His father, November Caldwell, was a slave to Joseph Caldwell. His son’s grave is now marked with his enslaver’s former obelisk.

The plaque, which stands several feet from the crowd, honors those buried there with unmarked graves.

A poem by George Moses Horton is engraved on its face. Porter begins to read:

“Thus we, like birds, retreat

To groves, and hide from ev’ry eye;

Our slumb’ring dust will rise and meet

Its morning in the sky.”

From enslavement to remembered icons, Porter sets the record straight for yet another tour group.

Edited by Caroline Metzler