Frequently Asked Questions About UNC History

Where did the "Tar Heels" nickname come from?

The term “tar heel” dates back to North Carolina’s early history, when the state was a  leading producer of supplies for the naval industry. Workers who distilled turpentine from the sticky sap of pine trees and burned pine boughs to produce tar and pitch often went barefoot during hot summer months and undoubtedly collected tar on their heels. To call someone a “rosin heel” or “tar heel” was to imply they that they worked in a lowly trade.

During the Civil War, North Carolina soldiers flipped the meaning of the term, and turned an epithet into an accolade. They called themselves “tar heels” as an expression of state pride. Others adopted the term and North Carolina became widely known as the “Tar Heel State.”

In the 1880s, when UNC teams began competing in intercollegiate sports, they needed a nickname. There does not appear to have been any debate over what to call the teams and how to express school spirit. They were then, and have always been, Tar Heels. 

Learn more:

Bruce Baker, "Why North Carolinians Are Tar Heels: A New Explanation." Southern Cultures (Winter 2015).

William S. Powell, "What's in a Name?: Why We're All Called Tar Heels." Tar Heel Magazine (March 1982).


What is the correct spelling of Tar Heel?

UNC spells "Tar Heel" as two words. "Tarheel" is incorrect.


Why is UNC's mascot a Ram?

UNC cheerleader Vic Huggins is credited with beginning the tradition of Ram mascots at UNC. In 1924, during a rough year for the football team, Huggins decided that UNC needed an animal mascot similar to N.C. State's wolf or Georgia's bulldog. The idea for using a ram came from the nickname for star Tar Heel fullback Jack Merritt, known as the "Battering Ram."

Huggins obtained $25 from the University for the mascot and ordered a live ram from Texas. They named him Rameses. The ram arrived when the team was 2-4 and looking for inspiration. Rameses's first appearance on the sidelines was during the UNC-VMI game on November 8, 1924, a hard-fought Carolina victory. Rameses and his descendants have been fixtures at UNC football games ever since.

UNC introduced a costumed Rameses during the 1987-1988 basketball season. While the costume has gone through a few changes over the years, the student-worn ram costume has become an equally important part of the UNC athletics experience.

Learn more:

"The Ram as Mascot,

"Rameses: A Mascot's Story," History on the Hill:


When did the University of North Carolina open and when did it admit its first students?

North Carolina's 1776 constitution called for the creation of an institution of higher learning, but the state's General Assembly did not charter the University of North Carolina until December 1789. A site for the University was located in 1792, and the cornerstone of the University's first building, Old East, was laid on October 12, 1793, which is now celebrated as University Day. The University opened its doors on January 15, 1795. The first student, Hinton James, arrived on February 12.

Law and custom restricted non-white students at the University until the second half of the 20th century. State laws that prohibited racially integrated education prevented the admittance of African Americans and Native Americans. The admittance of Henry Owl, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to graduate school in 1939 was a rare exception.

There were some international students at UNC in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shinzaburo Mogi, from Japan, attended Carolina during the 1893-1894 school year and may have been UNC’s first international student. Several students from Cuba enrolled at UNC in the early 20th century.

UNC resisted efforts by African American students to attend the school until 1951, when a federal court ruling ordered the University to admit African American students to its graduate programs. A separate court order led the University to admit African American undergraduates beginning in 1955.

Learn more:

Kemp Plummer Battle, History of the University of North Carolina (volume 1, 1789-1868).

 Pamela Dean, Women on the Hill: A History of Women at the University of North Carolina.

 Neal Cheek, "An Historical study of the Administrative Actions in the Racial Desegregation of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1930-1955." Dissertation, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1973. Available in Wilson Library:


Was the University of North Carolina the first state university?

A friendly debate rages between the University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina concerning which school can accurately claim the distinction of first state university. The University of Georgia claims the title based on the fact that it received its charter before the University of North Carolina. UNC claims to be first because it was the first to open.

The University of Georgia was chartered in 1785. UNC received its charter in 1789. While the North Carolina legislature was a few years later than Georgia in chartering a state university, North Carolina was quicker to act. UNC opened on January 15, 1795, and the first student arrived on February 12. UNC's first graduation was held in 1799, making it the only public university to graduate students in the 18th century. By the time the University of Georgia opened in 1801, the University of North Carolina had graduated three classes.

Learn more: 

William Snider, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. NCpedia:

History of the University of Georgia:


Why are UNC's colors white and light blue?

Dialectic Society diploma with blue ribbon, 1840s. From the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library.

UNC's school colors come from two of the oldest student organizations on campus. The Dialectic and Philanthropic societies, literary and debate groups founded shortly after the University opened in 1795, each had its own distinctive color. The Dialectic Society's color was light blue and the Philanthropic Society's was white.

Students wore blue or white ribbons, depending on which society they belonged to, to dances and other school events. For many years, the ribbons were used on official certificates and diplomas.

When UNC began participating in intercollegiate sports in the late 1880s, choosing light blue and white were obvious choices for the school colors. The light blue color became so closely associated with the University that by the 1920s it was referred to as "Carolina blue."

The exact color of Carolina blue has often been debated. Early ribbons and publications show a very pale blue in contrast to the darker shade that was used for football and basketball uniforms in the late 20th century. In 2015, the University declared Pantone 542 as the official color of Carolina blue.

Learn more:

Shannon DeRespino, "The School Colors: The History of Carolina Blue," History on the Hill blog, 2016.

Beth McNichol, "Blue Genes." Carolina Alumni Review, July/August 2002, pp. 26-35.

UNC Creative, "Carolina Blue & Color Guidelines."


How did the Yackety Yack (the student yearbook) get its name?

The original UNC yearbook, The Hellenian, was first published in 1890. The name reflected the heavy influence of the campus fraternities, who were primarily responsible for the yearbook. In 1901, the name was changed to the Yackety Yack. The phrase comes from a school cheer that had been popular since the mid-1890s:

Yackety Yack,

Hooray, Hooray!

Yackety Yack,

Hooray, Hooray!

Carolina Varsity!

Boom Rah, Boom Rah,


These organized school cheers were heard at football and baseball games and other events where students were gathered. After the UNC-Virginia football game in 1900, the student newspaper reported that the "Yackety Yack! caused a storm of enthusiasm."

Learn more:

History of the Yackety Yack,


What is the origin and significance of University Day?

University Day is a celebration of the University’s founding. It is observed annually on October 12th, the anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the first campus building, Old East, in 1793.

The University first celebrated University Day on October 12, 1877, after Governor Zebulon B. Vance ordered that “the anniversary of the day on which the cornerstone of the University was laid be made a college holiday to be observed with appropriate ceremonies under the direction of the faculty.” The first University Day ceremony was held in Gerrard Hall, which was decorated with evergreen garlands for the occasion.

The Glee Club performed and President Kemp Plummer Battle spoke for an hour on the University’s origins.

In 1906, former UNC president Dr. Edwin A. Alderman received an honorary doctor of laws, the first honorary degree given on University Day. The practice of awarding honorary degrees later evolved to the presentation of Distinguished Alumna and Alumnus Awards, first given in 1971 to “alumni who had distinguished themselves in a manner that brought credit to the University.”

The ceremonies have often featured prominent speakers. On University Day 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 32,000 people in Kenan Stadium. Kennedy and Governor Terry Sanford received honorary degrees. For the University's Bicentennial University Day in 1993, President Bill Clinton addressed a capacity crowd at Kenan Stadium.

University Day has occasionally served as a venue for student protests. In 1987, students interrupted the ceremony to demonstrate against apartheid in South Africa. In 1992, students advocating for a freestanding Black Cultural Center spoke out, and in 2015 and 2017 students urged the University to take down the on-campus Confederate monument ("Silent Sam").

Learn more:

William S. Powell, "University Days of the Past." Alumni Review, November 1975, pp. 8-9.

Janice Albright, "University Day Commemorates Cornerstone." Alumni Review, October 1980, p. 11.