50 Years of the Carolina Union By Clara Matthews and Shadi Bakhtiyari

The 1968-69 academic year was a lively one on UNC's campus. Senior Charlie Scott, Carolina's first black scholarship athlete, led the men's basketball team to the Final Four. The muddy patch of grass that was once the site of Carolina's athletic field was bricked over and christened "The Pit" by seniors Bruce Cunningham and Phyllis Hicks. Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon visited Phillips Hall to have a look UNC's computer lab.

This was also the year that the Carolina Union opened its doors, replacing Graham Memorial as the campus student union. While Graham Memorial had served UNC students well, years of growth at UNC had increased the student population and pushed the focal point of campus south, making it difficult for the Graham building to serve as the hub of activity.

Construction began on a new facility by South Road in early 1967. UNC also needed a new bookstore, a dining hall, and an undergraduate library -- there was even talk of creating one building to house all of them together. Eventually, the final plan was to select a single construction firm to build the new Union, a separate university bookstore, and a separate undergraduate library.

The new union opened on January 6, 1969. Officially named the Frank Porter Graham Student Union, the building quickly became known as the Carolina Union. At 100,000 square feet, it was four times the size of Graham Memorial. It held a bowling alley, game room, lounge, a performance space known as the Cabaret, a snack bar, a barber shop, and an information desk that served as the primary source of information for anything and everything going on at the University.

The new Carolina Union's bowling alley.

Through its 50-year history, the Carolina Union has remained steadfast in its mission to bring safe, inclusive and educational experiences to Carolina, engaging students in ways that foster connection and meaningful growth.

"We want to elevate the individual student to help them participate with the community as a whole," said Carolina Union Director Crystal King. "We are the place where you can share passions, learn from others, challenge social norms, and learn how you want to operate in the world. We want to give students a place of caring, love, and support that has no restrictions based on who they are."

Jordan Bermudez, a senior from Durham and Chair of the Carolina Union Board of Directors, says the critical component of the Union’s future success lies in students embracing the Union as an organization that is their own. “I want students to continue to push us to be innovative," she said. "If there is programming they want to create or experiences they want or spaces they need, even if it is a small thing, they should know that the Union belongs to them. We will champion your voice, and we will make your ideas work.”

Impactful Experiences

From entertainers to voices on important cultural and social topics, the Carolina Union, in conjunction with Carolina Union Activities Board (CUAB), has a history of delivering thought-provoking and impactful programming.

Spring Jubilee dates back to the early days of CUAB and featured artists like B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Chuck Berry. Contemporary rap and hip-hop artists like 2 Chainz and Waka Flocka Flame have performed following Jubilee’s resurrection in the mid 2010s. Over the course of its history, the Union has attracted acclaimed acts such as Prince, Janis Joplin, Ike and Tina Turner, The Avett Brothers, Boyz II Men, Yo-Yo Ma, and Living Color.

The Carolina Union helped bring Prince to UNC in 1983.

The Union has also hosted a fascinating range of speakers who sparked discussion on important topics of the day. Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, Jane Fonda, and Alice Walker were among the internationally-known voices representing diverse spheres of thought. There has also traditionally been focus on topics of relevance to students. In 1979, the Carolina Union sponsored a program on racism, which featured author Michelle Wallace. She discussed the myths and falsehoods about black men and women that perpetuated racism.

Gloria Steinem held a press conference at the Carolina Union before headlining the campus's Women's Festival in 1974.

Later, the Union would take on topics of student health and safety. “We had the only available expert on Ecstasy,” said Tracy Taft Morton, an alumna and 1988-89 CUAB president. “There was very little research of the long term effects of the drug at the time and [that event] was really well attended because this drug was gaining popularity on campus.”

When the mid-1990s saw a spike in alcohol-related arrests and alcohol poisoning on campus, the Carolina Union stepped forward to create FallFest, an campus-wide involvement fair at the beginning of the academic year that creates a safe and inclusive welcoming party for all students. FallFest remains a thriving event more than 25 years later.

Continuous Growth

The Union has served as a hub of activity and incubator for ideas since its inception. As students poured into the building through the 1970s, it was apparent that the still-new Carolina Union needed to expand. In 1980, 20,000 additional square feet were added to the building, including a 400 seat movie theater and new offices and meeting spaces to accommodate 116 student organizations. It also held offices for the Daily Tar Heel and a radio production studio for WXYC, the campus radio station.

In the early 2000s, the Carolina Union underwent another larger phase of renovation, expanding toward South Road and adding over 40,000 additional square feet to the overall Union space. Offices, meeting and collaboration spaces, and a new computer lab were all included in this phase of renovation. The Cabaret was removed and lounge space was expanded. Additionally, areas for food service were added, bringing Alpine Bagel and Wendy's into the building.

Major construction in the early 2000s expanded the Union toward South Road.

One of the most notable additions to the Union during this period was the installation of “The Gift,” designed by Senora Lynch. Lynch is a potter and artist from the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe. “The Gift” incorporates imagery from Native American storytelling and the natural world, such as corn, water, the hills, the turtle, the dogwood flower, the eagle feather, and the four directions.

The Gift Plaza

For many, "The Gift" is among the finest pieces of art at UNC, and is representative of the inclusiveness and thoughtful atmosphere the Carolina Union supports. “[‘The Gift’] is something that’s just very important to me personally and to a lot of people on this campus,” said Tammy Lambert, assistant director of Student Organizations, who has worked at the Carolina Union for more than 20 years. “It was a really big deal when it was installed.”

Recent improvements to the Carolina Union have been driven by student input and reflect their vision for spaces that are adapted to their needs. Collectively, they have created the building's reputation as "the living room of campus".

"We want students to have the loudest voice, since it is their fees that are used," King said. "It is their opportunity to make an impact with their resources and to activate responsible leadership by creating a building that will be useful to them and to the generations of students that follow them."

Overhauls to the West Lounge and Aquarium Lounge have provided versatile spaces that accommodate uses from quiet study to lively conversation over a bite to eat. The new Rehearsal Space was initiated by UNC's largest student-run dance group, Blank Canvas, which identified a need for additional performing arts practice spaces on campus.

The Healing Space, completed in 2017, offers a place for students to come in times of need. Amid the bustle of daily life at UNC, students said they needed room for quiet reflection at difficult moments was needed on campus. The lounge has a fireplace, chocolates, inspirational quotes, and even an oversized toy dog for cuddling.

Bermudez says the Union will continue to invest in physical spaces that are guided student input. “A lot of the vision is making sure we keep the student voice central so students see that we listen, we care and we want to make these improvements for them,” Bermudez said.

Fostering Leaders

Today, the Carolina Union remains a driver of student experiences at Carolina. It is a hub for student life and houses the 800+ student organizations on UNC’s campus. It also provides students with opportunities to develop professionally and become more connected and involved in campus life.

Student Life & Leadership is active in creating programming, activities, and events that foster professional and social development among UNC students. The mission of Student Life and Leadership is “to create an inclusive Carolina community through engagement and intentional educational opportunities.” Programs such as Carolina United, LeaderShape, and the Bell Student Leadership Symposium reflect the emphasis Student Life & Leadership places upon collaboration, “lifelong learning, and authentic connections. As students learn, connect, and collaborate with their peers, they develop soft skills that can be carried throughout and following one’s time at UNC."

The Carolina Union has fostered student leadership programs at UNC.

The Union is also home to Fraternity & Sorority Life, which oversees the 61 fraternity and sorority organizations at Carolina. The OFSL aims to “enhance the academic experience, holistic development, and civic contribution of students.” Its goal is to foster a supportive and inclusive community that provides students with the means and resources to grow their leadership, professional, and social skills.

Similar to various offices within the Union, all of the Union departments provide students with the opportunity to develop professional skills. Through student employment, Union student employees are supported as they learn and grow professionally and personally.

Anna Bradsher, a senior at UNC, is a design assistant and student supervisor in the Communications and Creative Services (CCS) office. She has a lot of positive things to say about her time spent in the CCS office.

“Working in this environment has really opened my eyes to different perspectives and taught me how to properly work with other people," said Bradsher. "It has also made me more aware that not everyone sees the same things as you - so it’s been amazing being able to collaborate with both full-time and student staff. I’ve also gained a lot of design and leadership experience from my positions.”

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