The following is a digital timeline of the Department of English & Comparative Literature (ECL) undertaken in celebration of 225 years of rhetoric, writing, film, and literature at Carolina. The study of rhetoric, writing, and literature began with the birth of the University and grew in substantial and meaningful ways over the last two centuries. Literature, writing, and the study of narratives has fueled the spirit of UNC, creating a culture among faculty, staff, and students that allows for critical reflection on the world around us and our experiences of it, while also imagining new possibilities. This culture of possibility and exploration generated from the study of literature, rhetoric, and writing led to the creation of the modern Department of English & Comparative Literature. Along the way, it also spurred the creation of many new programs of study and organizations at UNC, including the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, Journalism, Folklore Studies, the Playmakers, American Studies, Film Studies, Creative Writing, the Writing Program, the Carolina Quarterly, Studies in Philology, The UNC Latina/o Studies Program, and the Blake Archive. Despite this important growth, the University began with narrow ideas of who was entitled to be a student and a faculty member that reflected the prevailing ideas and inequity at the time. Therefore, this timeline begins with the acknowledgment of these exclusions and inequities as they shape the department’s history and its legacies.
The Department of English & Comparative Literature recognizes the land and sovereignty of Native and Indigenous nations in Chapel Hill, in North Carolina, in North America, and across the world. We acknowledge that UNC’s land history includes a dispossession of people who first lived here, a dispossession that profited the University at the expense of sovereign indigenous nations.
The University of North Carolina sits on the land of the Occaneechi, Shakori, Eno, and Sissipahaw peoples. Additionally, NC has been home to many Indigenous peoples at various points in time, including the tribes/nations of: Bear River/Bay River, Cape Fear, Catawba, Chowanoke, Coree/Coranine, Creek, Croatan, Eno, Hatteras, Keyauwee, Machapunga, Moratoc, Natchez, Neusiok, Pamlico, Shakori, Sara/Cheraw, Sissipahaw, Sugeree, Wateree, Weapemeoc, Woccon, Yadkin, and Yeopim. Today, NC recognizes 8 tribes: Coharie, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Saponi, Haliwa Saponi, Waccamaw Siouan, Sappony, and the Eastern Band Cherokee. The state is also home to Indigenous nations from Abiayala that among others include: Maya Q’anjob’al, K’iche’, Awakateco, and Mam, Zapotec, and Otomi.
Additionally, the Department of English & Comparative Literature acknowledges that much of the University was built and sustained with the forced labor of enslaved Africans and their enslaved descendants. Moreover, early funds used to build the university came from the sale of enslaved peoples who were defined by the law as escheats. According to the online exhibit, Slavery and the Making of the University, created by University archivists who researched primary documents dating back to before the founding of UNC, when the General Assembly charted the university in 1789, they did so without allotting any direct appropriations instead granting “the Board of Trustees wo sources of income: monies owed the state for certain kinds of arrearages up to 1 January 1783 and ‘all the property that has heretofore or shall hereafter escheat to the state.’” This led to the University to acquire significant wealth as it inherited property over time. Because enslaved peoples were often included in such escheated property, the university gained wealth by selling the enslaved peoples they acquired through this process.
In addition to acquiring wealth through the sale of enslaved peoples escheated to the University, the University’s infrastructure was built and maintained by people who were given the designation “University servant,” a term used for both Black Americans with ‘free’ status and enslaved persons whose time was hired from their enslavers by the university. Enslaved peoples contributed to the construction of building Old East, the Old Chapel (Person Hall), Old West, the New Chapel (Gerrard Hall), and additions to Old East and Old West, the maintenance of the arduous early life of the University before electricity and running water, including serving many students who lived on campus. According to Slavery and the Making of the University, “’it had been the custom for some of the wealthier students . . . to bring with them to college their personal slaves.’ This practice was apparently prevalent enough that the trustees in 1845 adopted an ordinance declaring that ‘no servant except the regular college servants shall be employed by the students to perform any of the ordinary duties of college servants.’” Additionally, most of the University’s first Board of Trustees owned enslaved Africans and their descedants as they were “some of the state’s wealthiest and most influential men” (Slavery and the Making of the University). Therefore, the history of the University is marked by the brutality and dehumanizing system of slavery.
Moreover, inequity and exclusion governed much of the official and social life of the University as people were denied admittance and ability to work at UNC because of their religion, gender, race and ethnicity. While these exclusions no longer govern the University to the extent that they once did, these legacies still shape University life. Today, People of Color disproportionately work as service staff on our campus and in our wider society. This community is largely responsible for the maintenance of the campus, the food and food service available at Chapel Hill, and many other basic necessities that make gatherings possible. Additionally, the student body and faculty are not representative of the racial and ethnic diversity of North Carolina. The following timeline of the Department of English and Comparative Literature draws attention to these exclusions and inequities in its history.
It is also important to note that we have thought deeply about how and when to use racial, ethnic, and gender descriptors. We acknowledge that such descriptors are always incomplete as they do not take into account the fullness of a person or their specific experiences and histories, and they represent, as Patricia Williams explains, “only one of a number of governing narratives or presiding fictions” that configure a person’s place in the world (The Alchemy of Race and Rights, 256). With this in mind, when possible, we have tried to use the terms with which the people written about identify themselves. When referring to the scholarship of individuals, we have tried to use the categories they use to describe their own scholarship. We have also chosen to use the descriptor Black American in place of African American, because we acknowledge not all people who identify as Black, identify with African ancestry. Additionally, we have capitalized all racial and ethnic categories.
While this is the most comprehensive collection of the history of rhetoric, writing, film, and literature at Carolina compiled to date, this history is still incomplete. The collection of records and the construction of archives are shaped by power structures that determine what is worthy of collection and documentation and what is left out. Such choices create silences and fragments in the historical record. This timeline also reflects the inequality of the available records, as for much of the early history little to nothing was recorded about women and people of color, and these records were less likely to be preserved over time. We recognize that many histories are passed down outside of formal archival spaces. Therefore, if you have such information that could add to this timeline, please contact the DLC lab at DLC_Lab@unc.edu.
Additionally, the new ECL major (with concentrations in social justice and literature, creative writing, comparative and world literatures, film studies, British & American literature, science, medicine & literature and writing, and editing & digital publishing) was designed to teach students how to think critically about how such archival silences, exclusions, and inequities are produced, as well as how to challenge them. In many ways the creation of the timeline is meant to further the important inclusive work done in the humanities. This work focuses on sharing the stories of all people with the beauty of their diverse experiences, while recognizing the challenges presented in making these voices heard.
This timeline was created by the Digital Literacy and Communications Lab, directed by Dr. Courtney Rivard. Students in the lab, including Garland Reiman, Emily Youree, Paul Blom, and Hannah Montgomery, spent countless hours over a two-year period combing through archives, conducting interviews, and compiling information to create this most complete history of the Department of English and Comparative literature that currently exists. This work could not have been completed without the help of Dr. Connie Eble and Dr. Erika Lindemann. Dr. Eble provided her wealth of personal knowledge and records as she came to serve as a faculty member in the department in 1971. Dr. Lindemann served as faculty member in ECL for 30 years. Not only did Dr. Lindemann provide her personal knowledge, but she also shared her research into the history of rhetoric and writing, which includes UNC’s contribution to this history. Additionally, as the former associate dean for Undergraduate Curricula, she created a digital history of the antebellum University, which can be found at "True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina." The digital infrastructure of this timeline is built with the open-source software provided by Scalar. Grant Glass provided the customized coding to adapt the software to the needs of the project.