Blood, Sweat and Money: UNC-CH Reckons With Names Tied to Enslavement

A portrait of William Ackland in his prime. It hangs next to his tomb inside the museum that he endowed to create and support and that bears his name. Photo by Michelle Cassell.


By Michelle Cassell
Assignment Editor/Correspondent

To date, five University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) buildings with names associated with white supremacists have been renamed. Nine more are currently being evaluated by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and an ad hoc committee. The Board of Trustees will have the final vote.

One building not part of the campus buildings review, The Ackland Museum, has chosen a path of full disclosure rather than a name change.

The museum’s controversy stems from William Ackland’s wealth, which was used to build the structure and house his personal art collection. The endowment still contributes to art acquisitions. Before marriage to his father and Ackland’s birth, his mother, Adelicia Acklen, became the wealthiest woman in the state of Tennessee upon the death of her first husband, Isaac Franklin.

Franklin co-founded Franklin & Armfield, the largest and most prosperous slave-trading firm ever recorded in the United States. He and his partner, John Armfield, headquartered their slave-trading business in a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

The Washington Post provides an account of the exploitation and atrocities Franklin and Armfield forced upon on thousands of enslaved humans in its article about the office’s new history as Freedom House, which is now a museum dedicated to telling the horrific story of the business, Franklin and Armfield, and what took place within the structure’s walls.

Ackland might win a prize if there was a scale to measure whose family history has been linked with some of the worst of man’s inhumanity to man. However, while Ackland grew up on the family plantations and benefitted from the riches, he himself was not engaged in the slave trade.

As the museum’s biography of its namesake and other sources tell it, Ackland appears to have led a somewhat frivolous life of folly and pleasure—a long, genteel adulthood of study, travel, society, penning prose and poetry, and short stints of employment. He married for a short period, divorced and died childless at 84. Nonetheless, the link to Isaac Franklin has tarnished Ackland’s name and legacy in modern times by association.

Dr. Joshua Rothman is the author of The Legend and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America. Rothman told The Local Reporter (TLR) in a phone interview, “It was a difficult book to write. The brutality and remorseless violence that Franklin and his partner inflicted on enslaved people was hard to read about when doing my research. I often had to take a break to maintain my objectivity.” Rothman is one of the foremost historians of slavery in the United States.

“We found Dr. Rothman to be very helpful in our research regarding William Ackland,” said Ariel Fielding, director of communications for Ackland Art Museum.

According to the museum’s online biography, Ackland—who had changed his name from Acklen—was interested in endowing the creation of an art museum in the South (a relatively novel concept for the region at the time). He reached out to multiple universities, of which the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was one.

However, Duke University was chosen to have been the museum’s home—until a series of events led to Duke’s declining the offer. UNC-Chapel Hill then became the recipient of Ackland’s largesse and the museum opened in 1958. Although buried originally in Florida, Ackland’s remains were moved to a marble sarcophagus at the museum’s site in compliance with his bequest.

William Hayes Ackland’s tomb inside Ackland Art Museum. His final request was to be buried in a tomb there. Photo by Michelle Cassell.

Ackland Art Museum has wrestled with the stigma of association with Isaac Franklin that Ackland’s legacy entails. It also recognized that this was a story that needed to be told to the community and visitors it serves.

Instead of changing its name, the museum’s leadership decided to clarify Ackland’s history by updating its website with a more accurate description of its founder, who was not a slave trader but who inherited ill-gotten wealth that he used to create the museum.

On the wall next to Ackland’s tomb inside the museum is an explanation of where his money came from and how he had never participated in the slave trade or slave ownership. Ackland Art Museum today is home to numerous fine art exhibitions and activities open to a diverse population of locals and Chapel Hill visitors. 

UNC’s review continues

It’s no secret that UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus was built with the sweat and toil of slaves. The University devotes a website and a comprehensive PDF document to acknowledging that fact, with both containing compelling research.

The UNC website acknowledges the bloodshed and harsh treatment of the slaves that built the campus. They also recognize the freed slaves who stayed on as employees of UNC and made significant contributions to the University’s workforce.

In June 2020, UNC lifted what was to have been a 16-year moratorium, enacted in 2015, on renaming campus buildings bearing the names of white supremacists. Charles Brantley Aycock, Julian Shakespeare Carr, Josephus Daniels and Thomas Ruffin Sr. had their names replaced in 2020 by notable alums who are people of color. The (William L.) Saunders name was previously taken off (in 2014) and renamed Carolina Hall (in 2015) before the moratorium began, according to information provided by UNC-CH Media Relations Manager Pace Sagester.

Renaming a building, however, is not a simple or quick process, and UNC-CH is still examining the names of additional buildings that researchers from the Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward have identified as unacceptable because of the backgrounds of those who have received the honor.

“The two processes the University has established for building names—name removal and renaming—require thorough and diligent research with the engagement of individuals across the Carolina community, as well as thoughtful consideration from students, faculty, staff, administrators and the Board of Trustees. You can learn more about the processes here and here,” Sagester emailed to TLR.

The names under review are: William Waightstill Avery, Kemp Plummer Battle, Robert Hall Bingham, John Washington Graham, Bryan Grimes Jr., Joseph Gregoire De Roulhac Hamilton, Cameron Morrison, John Johnston Pettigrew, Thomas Ruffin Jr. and Zebulon Baird Vance.

A complete dossier on each individual and related information can be downloaded here. (Please note the documents contain racially offensive images and texts.)

The Commission’s additional recommendations were given to Chancellor Guskiewicz in June 2021. Guskiewicz said in a July 2020 press release: “If we kept these names on our buildings. I believe we jeopardize our integrity and impede our mission of teaching and service to all North Carolinians.” The process is ongoing.

Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As assignment editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.

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