WHEN CENSUS NUMBERS came out recently, some local analysis landed on increasing racial and ethnic diversity in Chapel Hill. A headline from The Daily Tar Heel, for example, declared: “New census data shows people of color driving growth in Chapel Hill.”
“People of color accounted for nearly 86 percent of all population growth, and about a third of Chapel Hill’s residents now identify as Black, Hispanic or Asian,” the article correctly pointed out. However, it’s also relevant that the population growth over all was at Chapel Hill’s slowest rate since 1900. (And, also, evolving census methodologies make the data a bit more complicated.)
Nevertheless, a diversifying trend over the last few decades is clear. In 1980, Chapel Hill was 85.4% white. In 2020, it was 66.9% white (not Hispanic or Latino). Carrboro in 2020 was similar at 68.2% white. But while the share of the white population has dropped significantly, in the last 40 years the Black population share has remained relatively flat at historically low percentages. The surge has been almost entirely among Asian and Hispanic or Latino residents. Asian people now make up the largest racial or ethnic minority in Chapel Hill at 13%.
From the founding of UNC and the village of Chapel Hill, African Americans, both enslaved and free, have constituted a significant and essential portion of the people here. At the dawn of the Civil War, about half of Chapel Hill’s residents were Black and it was still that way at the turn of the 20th century. And while the vast majority of Black people here in 1860 were enslaved, 9% of all Chapel Hill residents then were free Black people. That percentage is strikingly similar to where the local Black population has leveled off for the last four decades (currently 10.9%).
The recent census did show a small increase in the share of Chapel Hill’s Black population for the first time in 30 years. Since 1980 the census has reported the percentage to be:
1980 — 12.2% Black
1990 — 12.5% Black
2000 — 11.3% Black
2010 — 9.7% Black
2020 — 10.9% Black
Carrboro’s available population percentages are similar:
2000 — 13.1% Black
2010 — 10.1% Black
2020 — 11% Black
Historical data by race for the town going back much further in time is difficult to come by and compile. But thanks to research done by Yonni Chapman for both his doctoral dissertation and master’s thesis, for which he combed through old census rolls, we do have some numbers that allow us to see more clearly longer trends in Chapel Hill. (Note: University students were not typically counted as permanent residents of a college town until 1950.) This chart shows how the percentage of Black people in Chapel Hill has changed over 220 years.
These are the known data points represented in that chart:
1800 — 37.5% Black (enslaved)
1850 — 38.1% Black (32% enslaved, 6% free)
1860 — 47.6% Black (39% enslaved, 9% free)
1900 — 49% Black
1910 — 39.7% Black
1920 — 33.4% Black
1930 — 33% Black
1960 — 36% Black
1980 — 12.2% Black
1990 — 12.5% Black
2000 — 11.3% Black
2010 — 9.7% Black
2020 — 10.9% Black
The dramatic drop in the early 20th century mirrors the start of the Great Migration of Black people from the South as they fled Jim Crow as well as racial terror and violence, including here. As Chapman wrote:
The most likely explanation for the decline in black population from 1900 to 1910 was emigration in response to the white supremacy campaigns. A hostile racial climate may have driven significant numbers of African Americans out of Chapel Hill. The deaf ear that the town commissioners turned to an urgent request from black leaders shows how Jim Crow politics operated locally to make Chapel Hill an unwelcome place for black residents.
In August 1897, the Democratic leaders of Chapel Hill’s town commission demonstrated a marked indifference to the requests of long time black community leaders, Wilson Caldwell and Green McDade. These men spoke to the commissioners concerning drainage problems “of that portion of the village [near] The Col. Baptist Church.” It seems unlikely that experienced black community leaders would have appeared before the Board in the midst of North Carolina’s Fusion crisis without good cause. Nevertheless, at the next Board meeting the commissioners dismissed the request of the black community with the statement, “The desired change impracticable as the water would have to be diverted from its natural course.”
Chapel Hill’s Black population appeared to have leveled off at about one-third of residents in 1920 for the next several decades. As recently as 1960, with Jim Crow segregation still in place, Chapel Hill was still more than one-third Black. From there though, a second drastic decline occurred, diving from 36% to 12% in 1980, where it has roughly remained since.
Gentrification of local Black neighborhoods and the increasing unaffordability of Chapel Hill are often cited in regard to the low Black population numbers of the last few decades. And it is correct to do so. That is a major driver. But there could also be something more broad at play that would make it more difficult to simply point fingers at individual actors such as predatory investors, builders, and landlords of student rentals. I find it noteworthy that the most recent period of rapid decline, from 1960 to 1980, also happened to coincide with major civil rights gains and desegregation that transformed society and began to threaten white hegemony.
In 1964, the federal government forced Chapel Hill and everywhere to desegregate public accommodations, something the town had declined to do on its own despite four years of unrest and intense protests that began with the Chapel Hill Nine sit-in. White Chapel Hill had to open all restaurants and other businesses to Black neighbors. That also marked a turning point toward the eventual shrinking of the vibrant Black business district, a crucial economic source for the local Black community.
Additionally, as Black workers organized and won better wages and conditions for labor traditionally performed by Black workers, particularly at UNC, more of those jobs began going to white workers as they paid more.
As for schools, the all-Black high school, Lincoln, closed in 1966 as local public schools reluctantly fully desegregated for the first time. When that happened, not only were many begrudging white parents forced to send their children to school with Black children, but the Black community lost a vital support system of teachers, administrators, and coaches who were either fired or demoted. Even today, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district has the second-highest racial achievement gap in the nation, and it’s not uncommon for local Black parents to seek educational alternatives for their children, including by moving.
The way that UNC crawled toward integration for its students certainly was a major factor in the Black population’s relative decline too. Though the university was forced to first admit a few Black graduate students in 1951 and a few undergraduates in 1955, it was determined to drag knuckles toward enrolling any significant number. In fact, UNC tripled the size of its undergraduate student body from 1955 to 1970 as it had to slowlyyyy increase the number of Black students. As a result, the percentage of Black undergraduates would only rise to 1.4% by the 1969-70 academic year, helping to reduce the cultural impact of adding a couple hundred Black students.
The university’s growth, of course, drove the town’s, as well as helped to shape Chapel Hill’s racial makeup. From there, UNC’s Black enrollment gained only roughly 1% per year for a few years, then plateaued in the 6-7% range until the federal government once again intervened. In 1981 with Black enrollment only at about 8%, UNC was made to agree to get its Black enrollment up to 10.6%. UNC’s Black enrollment never did quite reach that level, topping out at 10.1% in 2003-2004, and has since dropped to 7.8%, back to where it was in the 1980s.
For reference, in 1960 the state of North Carolina was 24.5% Black, and today is 20.2% Black, nearly double Chapel Hill’s representative population and nearly triple UNC’s representative enrollment.
With that local trend firmly in place, and the share of the local Black population a fraction of what it was within memory for many folks, Chapel Hill and Carrboro have seen a boom of visible remembrances and acknowledgements of local Black people. Markers, plaques, a monument, a gateway, and murals of people and slogans like CommUNITY and Black Lives Matter. These are all wonderful and welcome. It’s unfortunate though that more people aren’t around to feel seen.
ONE GOOD THING:
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, begun with a service under a grapevine on this spot in 1864, after a storm in 2021.
BONUS … A SECOND GOOD THING:
The finished mural.
SOURCES & CREDITS:
QuickFacts, Chapel Hill and Carrboro — U.S. Census Bureau
1960 Census of Population, Supplementary Reports: Race of the Population of the United States, By States: 1960 — U.S. Census Bureau
2010 Chapel Hill Data Book, Demographics — Town of Chapel Hill
“Black Freedom and the University of North Carolina, 1793-1960,” by John K. (Yonni) Chapman
“Second Generation: Black Youth and the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill, N.C., 1937-1963,” by John K. (Yonni) Chapman
To Drink From The Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation's Oldest Public University by Geeta N. Kapur
“New census data shows people of color driving growth in Chapel Hill” — The Daily Tar Heel
“Viewpoints: The Myth of Chapel Hill’s Rapid and Extraordinary Growth” by John Rees and Stephen Whitlow — Chapelboro
“Historic African American Enrollment at UNC” — UNC Libraries
“First look at 2020 Census for North Carolina” — Carolina Demography
“History” — St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church
I am not a data wonk. The analysis and presentation herein reflect that fact. However, the percentages of population share for African Americans changed starkly at certain points in Chapel Hill’s history, reflecting clear trends.
Thanks for this article. I think there were a couple of other factors that played a role in the decrease of Black population in CH between '60-'80. As a native Chapel Hillian who was in elementary school in 1960 I have thought about this topic myself over the years. My thoughts are that a number of changes impacted the demographics of CH, in large part by bringing into town many Whites who were originally from outside of the area. RTP opened in 1960. By around 1965 the influx of people from outside of CH was really noticeable. These new people were almost entirely white. Around the same time, with the passage of the Civil Rts Acts and the end of segregated schools, and, in addition, the advent of widespread use of air conditioning, I believe that CH became a more "acceptable" place for non-southern whites to move. By 1980 widespread air travel allowed people to move here who could work from anywhere and used Chapel Hill as their home base. Chapel Hill changed from the "village" of my childhood to a place to which wealthier people came from throughout the country- Most of these people being White.