Sunday, February 11, 2007

Black History Month trivia question

Who was the first black student at UNC?

  • Pauli Murray
  • George Moses Horton
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • None of the above

It was not George Moses Horton, for whom a residence hall was named last fall. Horton, who famously penned poems for students at all-male UNC to send to their girl friends, was a Chatham County slave. He's believed to be the first black to publish a book in the South. As I've recently heard Tim McMillan tell it, his master allowed him to hire himself out on weekends, to come up to Chapel Hill and market his poetic skills; probably because his temperament wasn't all that suited to physical labor. He wasn't universally loved at the time. There's evidence that the students "ridiculed" him. UPDATE 2/13: Yesterday's dedication of the George Moses Horton Residence Hall.

It was not Pauli Murray, descendant of Orange County slaves and at least one white master, graduate of Hunter College who wanted to enter graduate school at UNC. According to Glenda Gilmore's profile of her in today's N&O, "On Nov. 10, 1938, the day after the Supreme Court heard arguments that state universities had to offer graduate education to African-Americans, Pauli Murray requested an application to the graduate shool of the University of North Carolina." In violation of the Supreme Court decision in that case, UNC denied her application. Murray's path took her in other directions, ultimately to ordination as an Episcopal priest. In 1977, she celebrated her first Eucharist here at Chapel of the Cross. "She looked up at the balcony where her grandmother had worshipped as a slave and gripped a lectern engraved with the name of her white great-aunt. To Murray, 'it was as if all the strands of my life had come together.'"

In 1939, Zora Neale Hurston was hired as a professor at North Carolina College, Durham (later North Carolina Central University). She wanted to take a class at UNC with Paul Green; according to Tim McMillan, she was interested in getting him to work with her on a play that would be based on some of her folklore research. She was allowed to enroll, and so she did attend classes on campus for a brief period. But her presence was too much: they soon moved the class sessions to Green's home.

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