In life, Eli Merritt would have never shared a table with William Richardson Davie and Cornelia Phillips Spencer.

Yet on the opening page of the University of North Carolina’s new virtual museum, a photograph of Merritt, a college servant in the 1880s and likely a slave before that, sits beside portraits of UNC founder Davie (1756-1820) and Spencer (1826-1908), an ardent university supporter who vehemently opposed giving blacks the vote after the Civil War.

Merritt’s inclusion at the historical “table” points to the university’s glacially slow but sure move to reassess its identity and complex past. It’s a past that includes slave labor at the university’s very foundation, its begrudging integration and the long fight for a black cultural center.

After more than 200 years, there seems to be something in the Old Well water. In the last several years, individual students, scholars and archivists have been leading the way in interrogating the university’s idea of itself as a liberal oasis in an otherwise red state.

There’s now a class about the economics and politics of the black presence at UNC. Recent Ph.D. history graduate Yonni Chapman began asking questions in 2002 about Spencer’s anti-black rhetoric and why the university would name one of its awards after her; the university renamed the honor in December 2004. Last October, Wilson Library archivists opened the Slavery and the Making of the University exhibit, the first comprehensive look at the “peculiar institution” on campus.

UNC as an institution has not always moved quickly to recognize its diverse and often divided past, but change is afoot. When the fall 2006 semester opened, the residence hall Hinton James North was renamed Horton Hall, after George Moses Horton, the slave poet who peddled classical verse to lovelorn UNC students for mere quarters (and ultimately high-tailed it out of town behind Union troops); it’s only the fifth of the university’s nearly 250 current structures to be named after an African American and the first named after a slave. And also this fall, the university announced plans for an American Indian center.

While activists and academics have been reframing university history, UNC has not moved as quickly.

And on Oct. 12, University Day, Chancellor James Moeser introduced the virtual museum, an online collection with 15 exhibits (more will probably be added) and links to historical documents. Three of the exhibits deal with the relationship between African Americans and the university: those on slavery, segregation and integration.

Annette Cox, a business historian and a staff member at UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, coordinated the virtual museum project.

She said: “The chancellor decided to abolish the [Cornelia Spencer Phillips Bell] award, but at the same time, he wanted to produce a more balanced view of history and include stories about race and gender. Most Southern universities have this kind of controversial past; what we’re doing is putting it out front.”

What this so-called “good revisionism” reveals is often troubling. One vignette from the virtual museum describes how ex-slave Ben Boothe earned money in the 1880s. For five cents, he would allow students to hit him over the head with a board. For an additional nickel, he’d crow like a rooster.

How the university commemorates its black laborers may be the most contentious issue in the memory debate as it grapples with explaining slaves’ relationship with the school and even what to call them.

It wasn’t the custom to call slaves slaves, said Slavery and the Making of the University co-curators Janis Holder and Susan Ballinger. They were labeled “college servants” or “hands,” euphemisms that implied freedoms of mobility and self-determination denied to these people-as-property.

Yet, Holder said, there is no denying the fact how critical slaves were to the university. Slaves constructed stone walls, kept the fires burning in student quarters (and, at least in one case, extinguished a dangerous fire in the belfry) and toted packages for students. University presidents, faculty and trustees owned slaves; John Cameron, namesake of Cameron Avenue, owned more than 470 slaves in different locations.

Though Holder and Ballinger found no records in the university archives to suggest that UNC actually bought or owned slaves, they found repeated references to its hiring of local slaves and instances where the university acquired slaves after their owners’ deaths and then sold them.

Holder said: “We had to walk the fine line between saying that the university didn’t own slaves and, yet, seeing the evidence that the university profited from slavery. After someone died [without wills or heirs], the university attorneys would hunt their slaves down and auction them off.” The money went into UNC’s coffers, and the slave unlucky enough to be collared went back to bondage.

“Unfree” labor was such a crucial part of the university landscape that all students were charged a $2 fee for its work. In 1845, students were banned from bringing their own slaves to the burgeoning campus–perhaps because of the perennial housing crunch and, no doubt, because a growing mass of slaves stirred fears of insurrection and an “unhealthy” black-to-white ratio.

In 1830, Orange County did have a darker complexion. That year, the local slave population reached its peak. The U.S. Census reported 15,918 whites and 7,339 slaves in Orange County, or 32 percent of the total population. By contrast, the 2000 census counted African Americans only as 11.7 percent of Orange County.

Anthropologist Tim McMillan wants members of the university community to picture that different Chapel Hill, when some of its residents were chattel. It’s a point he drives home over and over again in the “Black and Blue” tour he created more than five years ago.

On the evening of Oct. 4, McMillan was standing just outside the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and pointing to the low, mossy stone wall that divides the burial ground in half.

On one side lie the remains of Chapel Hill’s white elite, many of whose last names–Murphy, Caldwell, Kuralt–emblazon classroom buildings. To the wall’s west side, there are fewer headstones; rocks mark the resting places of Chapel Hill’s earliest black citizens, slave and free.

McMillan, an adjunct assistant professor in UNC’s African and Afro-American (AFAM) studies department, told an audience of about 50 students and area residents that the wall is a tangible color line that mimics just how close and yet separate the lives of black and white Chapel Hillians were–and remain today, as the blacks still keep to the west and whites to the east.

“1798 [when the cemetery was founded] to 2006. It is 2006, 50 years after desegregation as we know it, and this wall still divides us.”

McMillan’s “Black and Blue” tour, a crash course in UNC’s black history, tells participants about sites such as Franklin Street’s Chapel of the Cross, where a slave balcony still exists, or the peach-painted Old Playmakers Theatre, where folklorist and Their Eyes Were Watching God author Zora Neale Hurston briefly took classes under Paul Green–well before integration.

It’s the type of tour that Walter James III, a Chapel Hill resident and vice president of a black history software company, had been waiting for. After getting a master’s degree in French from UNC, he realized how little he knew about black history at his alma mater and beyond.

“Here I am with a master’s degree and I felt ignorant about my own history. This impairs both blacks and whites because if you don’t see the contributions [of blacks], if you think some group of people were just takers, there can’t be respect”–or historical accuracy.

McMillan’s tour began at the university’s most polarizing monument, Silent Sam.

“When people think about black history and Chapel Hill, Silent Sam is always the flashpoint. They say, ‘Why is this damn Confederate soldier standing at the entrance to campus?’ I like to point out that we choose what to remember from our past. When Silent Sam was erected in 1913, it was an era where consolidating white power was important,” said McMillan.

By contrast, a student tour guide from the Visitors Center stuck to the facts, saying Silent Sam was a tribute to more than 1,000 students who donned the Confederate gray during the Civil War.

McMillan and the student tour guide also had different takes on the Unsung Founders memorial, placed steps away from Silent Sam in 2005. The memorial consists of a polished stone table held by 300 approximately foot-high human figures and five stone seats. Inscribed around the table’s circular edges are the words “The Class of 2002 honors the University’s unsung founders, the people of color bond and free, who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.”

The student tour guide touted the Unsung Founders piece as a “worker monument” where people can sit and study.

It’s that very functionality that bothers McMillan.

“It seems kind of problematic for me when I see people changing diapers on it,” he said.

At an Oct. 4 panel, McMillan, fellow AFAM associate professor Reginald Hildebrand and Yonni Chapman expressed concerns about how Unsung Founders lacked the scale of other university tributes and, as Chapman quoted a newspaper letter writer, “midgetized” the very real contributions of the campus’ enslaved and free workers.

Chapman said: “Indeed, visitors who study or eat sandwiches on the monument table are seated on stools modeled after the fieldstone grave markers in Chapel Hill’s black cemetery. The black workers holding up the table are nearly invisible to such visitors, who inadvertently kick mud in the faces of the unsung founders. Disrespected, poorly paid and anonymous black workers have always carried the weight of the university on their backs. … Now they have a monument that supposedly honors them by mocking their sacrifice.”

The remedy: Chapman believes that UNC should include the names of slaves and black workers from various eras in Memorial Hall, where the names of Confederate veterans are enshrined in grand, newly renovated surroundings.

UNC senior education major Janell Jack sat at the Unsung Founders monument as she waited for the tour to begin.

“I’d never sat here before,” Jack said. “But I was reading this and it says ‘bond and free,’ it doesn’t even say the word ‘slave.’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s not right.’”

In his travels across campus and through the historical records, McMillan has found only one physical marker that uses the word “slave”: a headstone in the segregated cemetery that remembers Dilsey Craig with the words “60 years a slave, mostly in the home of Dr. James Phillips … well done good and faithful servant.”