Building named for WWI vet Henry Owl, first American Indian student at Carolina
via The Well web site of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University announced that it will honor Cherokee historian and teacher Henry Owl by placing his name on the Student Affairs building. Owl (1896-1980) was the first American Indian and the first person of color to enroll at the University, as a graduate student in history in 1928.
Henry McClain Owl was born on the Cherokee Indian reservation, formally known as the Qualla Boundary, in western North Carolina on Aug. 1, 1896. His father, Lloyd Owl, was a Cherokee blacksmith; his mother, Nettie Harris Owl, was a Catawba Indian from the Catawba reservation near Rock Hill, South Carolina. The couple met at the Cherokee Boarding School, operated by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1880 to 1954. Throughout much of its history, the school sought to separate Indian children from their language and culture, and by doing so, “remake them ‘in the image of the white man.’” Lloyd Owl died when Henry was 14 years old, leaving Nettie with 10 children to support. She did so by cleaning white people’s homes and selling her handmade baskets and pottery to tourists.
In 1912, Henry Owl enrolled at Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school founded shortly after the Civil War by the American Missionary Association. Its purpose was to train Blacks, newly emancipated from slavery, as teachers and skilled tradesmen. A decade later, near the end of the American Indian Wars, Hampton also admitted Native students as part of the federal government’s program of forced assimilation. Owl played on the school’s football team and published articles in its student newspaper, The Southern Workman. In 1918, he penned two essays, one, a celebration of “Successful Indians” to mark Indian Citizenship Day, and the other, an account of Indians’ military service in World War I. Later that same year, Owl graduated with a degree in carpentry and enlisted in the army. He served at Camp Jackson in South Carolina, where he rose to the rank of sergeant.
The army base was named for President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the deaths of more than 4,000 Cherokee people on the long march westward that came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
Naming a campus building for Henry Owl will affirm the principles of democracy, justice and equality that defined his life and career. As alumna Mary McCall Leland ’20 has noted, honoring Henry Owl will also point the way forward for our University. “We cannot right the wrongs of our past,” she explains, “but we can address them and acknowledge that we are a University willing to change and move into the 21st century as a more inclusive and welcoming institution.”
— Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Naming University Facilities and Units
After the war, Owl taught briefly at the Cherokee Boarding School on the Qualla Boundary. Then, in 1923, he accepted a position at Bacone College, a school established in Indian Territory in the 1880s by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. There, Owl taught courses in agriculture, carpentry and the “mechanic arts.” He left Bacone in 1925 to enroll at Lenoir-Rhyne College, a private Lutheran institution in Hickory. He excelled as a sportsman, sang in the glee club and, in his senior year, won the college’s prize for oratory. According to local newspaper accounts, his address showed fellow students how “his own people, the Cherokees of North Carolina,” had been “mistreated” and laid out “the great discouraging and horrible challenge[s]” they faced nearly a century after the Trail of Tears. Owl received his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 1928, and later in the year, enrolled at the University of North Carolina as a graduate student in history, becoming the first American Indian and the first person of color to attend Carolina.
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