The early history of the university is inseparable from the history of slavery in the United States. Many of the early faculty and most of the members of the UNC Board of Trustees profited directly from enslaved labor. Enslaved people helped build the first buildings and were present all over campus and town as laborers and servants through the end of the Civil War. Students came from elite slaveholding families in North Carolina and elsewhere. They brought enslaved personal servants with them until 1845, when the university banned the practice. Instead, students paid a fee to the university, which leased enslaved laborers from faculty and townspeople. Students relied on the enslaved women and men who cleaned their rooms, tended fires in the winter, did their laundry, and cooked their meals. The university also received income from the sale of enslaved people: because of the state law that awarded unclaimed property (escheats) to UNC, on multiple occasions the university inherited enslaved women, men, and children, who were subsequently sold, with the proceeds going to the university.

Most published histories of the university have failed to fully acknowledge the presence and impact of slavery on the university campus. In 2003 the University Archives put on an exhibit in Wilson Library called Slavery and the Making of the University, which helped spark a discussion about early university history. In 2005 the university dedicated the Unsung Founders Memorial, a public commemoration of the enslaved people who, along with free African Americans, helped build and maintain the university. In 2007 the university named a new residence hall for George Moses Horton, an enslaved man from nearby Chatham County who worked on campus and sold poetry to students. The work to understand and explain the university's history with slavery continues. On University Day 2018 Chancellor Carol L. Folt apologized on behalf of the university for its participation in the practice of slavery and called for more work to reconcile its past with its present and future.