Wilson Swain Caldwell was the first African American elected to any office in Chapel Hill. In 1841 Wilson was born a slave in the household of University of North Carolina’s second president David Swain who owned Wilson’s mother Rosa Burgess. Wilson’s father was November Caldwell, who was owned by UNC’s first president Joseph Caldwell. Wilson did not take on his father’s name until Emancipation.
Wilson Swain Caldwell worked on the University’s campus as a groundskeeper and servant until the Union Army came to Chapel Hill in 1865. It is believed that Wilson, acting as a prominent leader in the black community, accompanied the delegation that met the Union troops to have them spare Chapel Hill and the University from destruction.
After the war Governor William Woods Holden appointed the newly emancipated Wilson Caldwell Justice of the Peace for one year. Over the next few years Caldwell opened a school for African American children in Chapel Hill and worked as a schoolmaster near Elizabeth City. Caldwell returned to UNC when it reopened in 1875 and became the curator of the South Building and the head of the labor corp.
In 1886, Caldwell was elected to the Chapel Hill Board of Alderman (now the Town Board). He had been placed on the Republican ticket without his knowledge, but graciously carried out the duties of his new position, acting as the University’s representative in town affairs. This made Wilson the first African American to be elected to any position in Orange County. Shortly after Caldwell’s election, Jim Crow laws took hold in the South (c.1890s). Because of these laws it would be nearly 70 years before another African American was elected to a public office in Orange County.
Wilson Swain Caldwell married Susan Kirby and had twelve children. Five of the children died before reaching adulthood and two more passed before their parents. One of Wilson’s sons, Edwin Caldwell, became a doctor and developed the first cure for pellagra.
Wilson Swain Caldwell died in 1898 and is buried under the tallest obelisk in the old Chapel Hill Town Cemetery. The gravestone once memorialized UNC president Joseph Caldwell but was rededicated to Wilson, his father November, Henry Smith and David Barham who were also university servants.
The UNC class of 1891 had a monument placed on his grave that read:
Here was laid the body of Wilson Caldwell
The Student’s friend and servant,
An exemplar of modest merit,
The best type of black man,
Who he sought to elevate by labor;
The solution of the race problem.
Mindful Mainly of his duties,
His rights were cheerfully conceded.
Himself every respectful, he was always respected
Diligence dignified his service,
Three generations of white men testify of his faithfulness.
Let him rest here till he’s ready for work again.
As an enslaved person, Justice of the Peace, educator and elected official, Wilson Swain Caldwell made a lasting impression on the history of Orange County.