Hear more about Hamilton and how faculty at UNC-CH are working to undo his harmful legacy in the latest episode of "Tested" out now.
J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton spent decades in the first half of the 20th Century puttering along the backroads of the South in his trusted Ford, gathering the papers and artifacts that became the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was his life's work, and it gained him fame and a legacy that befitted an intellectual giant of the age.
Hamilton received every honor one could collect while he was alive and even more after his death in 1961.
There's a roadside historical marker on Churton Street in Hillsborough, a few steps from his stately home – also marked with a plaque. And UNC-Chapel Hill, his professional home for 43 years, named Hamilton Hall in his honor when opened in 1972.
But now, a reassessment of Hamilton's work and activities has provided a clearer, and much more critical, picture of who he was and how he shaped the historical record of the South.
When Hamilton rolled into a town in North Carolina or Alabama or Mississippi, he wasn't looking to tell a complete or even a particularly accurate story with the papers and records he gathered and brought back to Chapel Hill. The records he sought all came from white families, as Hamilton attempted to literally whitewash history, to add to and academically strengthen the Lost Cause beliefs that we already strongly held in the early half of the 20th Century.
Beneath the cloak of academic legitimacy, Hamilton was a white supremacist.
Among his dozen or so books, Hamilton wrote a biography of Robert E. Lee for young readers, written with his wife. Because of its intended audience, Hamilton's prose was more specific, and less academic. In the second line of the book's preface, he wrote this passage:
In the happy day to which we are now come, when the division between the sections, for years past one of sentiment alone, is fast disappearing, the Nation as a whole pays tribute to the lofty character, the sturdy Americanism, and the essential greatness of Robert Edward Lee no less than to that of Abraham Lincoln.
This book, The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls, was published in 1917, two years after the film The Birth of A Nation glorified the Ku Klux Klan. This period was a "happy day," according to Hamilton, despite rampant lynchings of Black people across his beloved South. It was the same year as the "Silent Parade," where 10,000 African Americans took to the streets in New York City in July in silent protest.
Alas, Hamilton did not bother to record or mention those events.
A Whitewashed History
Make no mistake, Hamilton had a massive impact on how historians and our society viewed the South before, during, and after the Civil War. His own father was an officer in the Confederate Army, and Hamilton studied at the so-called Dunning School at Columbia University – a group of historians trained by William Archibald Dunning, with the specific philosophy of undermining the legitimacy of Reconstruction and full citizenship for African-Americans.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, Hamilton worked closely with the Daughters of the Confederacy in expanding its outreach and monument-building. Through his own research, he argued that the Ku Klux Klan saved North Carolina from "corrupt and incompetent rule by Blacks and carpetbaggers." His teaching and the Southern Historical Collection influenced future historians like Shelby Foote and Claude Sitterson.
Sitterson later became a colleague of Hamilton's, and served as chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He recalled that his old professor was "very opinionated" in class lectures, and while Sitterson didn't specifically mention issues of race, it appears pretty clear that's what he meant.
"In his treatment of controversial issues, generally speaking, he would have a very strong view of whatever it was," Sitterson told the Southern Oral History Project in a 1985 interview. "In other words, he would commit himself… If you were attending one of Hamilton's classes, you wouldn't have any real doubt what he thought about it."
Today, historians are taking a deeper look at Hamilton and those colleagues that whitewashed history, and offering a more direct and specific critique of his work.
"Hamilton himself came from a wealthy slave-owning family, part of his goal in collecting was to make slavery appear to be better," says William Sturkey, associate professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Sturkey's office is on the fifth floor of Hamilton Hall, and we spoke outside the building, in a courtyard, not too far from the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library.
"The Southern Historical Collection has been incredibly important for the historical profession. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people from all over the globe come here to study the history of the South," he said. "When I first got here, I met a man from Tokyo who was here, studying the history of the South. But because it was so biased, there was only so much that you could actually learn."
That bias is now informative in a way Hamilton likely did not anticipate.
"People are now beginning to read these things in very different ways," said Sturkey. "His lens was that, 'Oh, this looks pretty good. For the slave owners. This looks pretty good for the Old South, what a nice society.' But when you read the letters, and you read about people giving enslaved people as birthday presents or wedding gifts, then that starts to tell a very different story."
Undoing a historian with the clout and reach of Hamilton requires new, more comprehensive and accurate scholarly work, and narratives. And that means rethinking and remaking the source material.
"Libraries aren't neutral, the decisions that we make, have a political leaning, and we have a choice to do it in an anti-racist way or in a more traditional white supremacy kind of way," said Chaitra Powell, the African American Collections and Outreach Archivist for the Southern Historical Collection.
Powell says since she started at the collection in 2014, her priority has been to grow the number of collections about African Americans in its repository.
"But I understood very early on that that is not as simple as it sounds, given the legacies of exclusion and not welcoming people of color on campus or in the archives," she said. "And so I wasn't going to be able to just start asking people to bring things without doing a lot more work."
Who Gets Honored
Re-centering Hamilton's scholarly work is one step; undoing the honors that were bestowed on him is another.
Faculty who now teach and have offices in Hamilton Hall penned a letter last year to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, calling for the building to be renamed. They cite that when the building was named after him, 11 years after Hamilton's death, his "anti-Negro view of Reconstruction" was widely understood and "forcefully disputed within the historical profession."
The faculty wrote:
To continue to glorify Hamilton’s name is to acquiesce in the use of the social sciences—the very disciplines housed in the building—for discrimination and oppression, by one of UNC’s own faculty members.
The faculty unanimously proposed a new honoree, suggesting that the building become Pauli Murray Hall.
Murray, a renowned scholar, activist, poet, writer, lawyer, and labor organizer, was denied entry into UNC-Chapel Hill's sociology graduate program in 1938 because, as her rejection letter stated: "members of your race are not admitted to the university."
In 1978, UNC-Chapel Hill hoped to award Murray an honorary degree; she turned it down because the university was failing, according to a federal court order, to "adhere to provisions of the civil rights law more vigorously."
Sturkey is skeptical that Murray Hall will become a reality.
"That's up to the Board of Trustees," he said. "The Board of Trustees is overwhelmingly white male, conservative. Pauli Murray is the opposite of that, essentially. So it's not likely that they would ever choose the name Pauli Murray unless they really deferred to the people in this building."
The faculty gave their recommendation for renaming the building to Chancellor Guskiewicz, who has now asked a special commission to review the recommendation. Ultimately, the decision would come down to the university’s Board of Trustees.
Some have criticized faculty involvement in issues like renaming buildings, and charged them with being too left-leaning. Sturkey sees it differently.
"The way that Hamilton collected materials was a political activity," he says. "And now all of a sudden, we're supposed to be neutral. I think the reverse is actually true. I think we have an obligation to use the resources of the institution to undo some of the negative effects created by the institution itself."
A few steps away from Hamilton Hall, Roulhac Hamilton lies buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, in a prominent place along a wide path, next to his wife and two children.
Early in the cemetery's existence, they buried Black people here, too. Some were slaves who helped build the university. They lay mostly in a far corner, many of their graves unmarked.
Their lives, of course, deserved honor, or at least to be recorded honestly. They got neither. That time has passed, and people like Hamilton played an inglorious role in making sure their stories were silenced or subsumed into the narrative of white supremacy.
To borrow from the fictionalized story of another man named Hamilton: history now has its eyes more clearly on the role Roulhac Hamilton and other historians played in telling this false tale.
Charlie Shelton-Ormond provided additional reporting for this story.