Graham Student Union

Carolina students began advocating for a new student union as early as the 1950s. The Graham Memorial Building, dedicated in 1931, was ill-suited for the needs of the post–World War II generation of students. The new union was part of an effort to expand and modernize student services at the university, built at the same time as the new Student Stores building and House Undergraduate Library. The modern architectural style of the new buildings was not popular with everyone, as seen in debates in the Daily Tar Heel at the time, but the increase in space was definitely welcomed. The Graham Student Union opened for students in 1969. The new building featured expanded office space, meeting rooms, lounges, snack bar, and a bowling alley. It was expanded in 1981 and again in the early 2000s.

The building is named for Frank Porter Graham, one of the most beloved figures in UNC–Chapel Hill history. A 1909 graduate of Carolina, Graham was a popular history professor at UNC before being elected as president of the university in 1930. In 1931 he was appointed president of the consolidated University of North Carolina. Graham oversaw the university system through the difficult years of the Great Depression and the subsequent boom in enrollment and building during and after World War II. He is usually remembered best for his concern for students and for his progressive politics.

Graham was widely popular with students, especially in Chapel Hill. Future university and state leaders, such as UNC System president William C. Friday and state governor Terry Sanford, cited Graham as a formative influence on their careers. Graham was often less popular around the state and was criticized for his support of organized labor and civil rights. His willingness to speak out on social and political issues was tempered by his reluctance to do anything that he felt would harm the university. When Pauli Murray applied to attend graduate school at UNC in 1939, Graham responded that it was too soon for him to publicly advocate for admitting African Americans to the university, fearful that doing so would “cause a throwback to a darker time.”

In 1949 Graham was appointed to serve out the remainder of a vacant term in the U.S. Senate. Widely expected to win reelection in 1950, he was defeated in the primary by Willis Smith, whose campaign focused heavily on Graham’s support of civil rights and integration. The loss was a blow not just to Graham but to his many devoted supporters among students and alumni. Graham would spend the remainder of his career working at the United Nations but was a frequent presence in Chapel Hill until his death in 1972.


Date Established: 1964

Date Range: 1964 – Present