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Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham (1886–1972) was raised in a Presbyterian household filled with books and lively discussion. Much of this discussion centered on the history and future of North Carolina, the South, the United States, and education. Graham’s father, superintendent of the Charlotte Public Schools, was adamant in his beliefs about public education for all children and frequently traveled around the state to convince citizens of its importance. As a boy, Graham accompanied his father to these meetings. Watching and listening to his father, Graham received a rich schooling in civic activism and developed strength of conviction in the face of opposition.

Graham attended Chapel Hill University in North Carolina, where he was engaged in activities that fueled his moral compass and passions. He served as president of the YMCA, the most active organization on campus, of his senior class, and of the Phi Society which hosted lively Saturday night debates. He also was editor-in-chief of the Tar Hill, Chapel Hill’s weekly newspaper.

Graham entered law school after graduating from Chapel Hill, not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because his friends were attending. Graham left law school in 1910 to teach history at Raleigh High School, but returned one year later to finish his degree. He subsequently accepted a position as secretary of the University YMCA, which he continued to serve until 1914 when he began teaching a history class.

After teaching college history for a year, Graham realized that he lacked enough historical knowledge to teach the subject well. He left for Columbia University with the intention of returning to Chapel Hill to teach. However, after receiving his master’s degree in history, Graham began working in the History Room of the New York City Library.

When the strain of using his eyes so much began to affect his vision, Graham moved to Minnesota to stay with his brother, an eye specialist. When his vision improved, he joined the Marines and served for two years. His entry into the Marines is representative of his tenaciousness when confronted with an obstacle. Graham, in his adamant desire to serve the nation during World War I, went to both the Army and Navy recruiting offices where he was turned down for being too short and too thin, and for having poor eyesight. He then embarked on a month-long regimen to increase his weight and physical strength. When he returned to the Army and Navy recruiting offices and the Marines, he again was rejected. Rather than give up, Graham contacted the Secretary of the Navy for a letter of introduction. With that letter, Graham was accepted into the Marines.

When the war ended, Graham returned to Chapel Hill and was named the University’s first dean of students. Because he didn’t enjoy the job as much as teaching, he resigned and returned to teaching history. Graham then elected to study at the University of Chicago with William E. Dodd, a master of Southern history. In 1923, Graham received the Amherst Memorial Fellowship for the Study of Social, Economic, and Political Institutions, which he used to study at the Graduate School of Economics of the Brooking Institution in Washington, DC.

There Graham studied under Walter Hamilton, a southern who believed that the democratic good life could be built for all. Graham became obsessed with the coming of the industrial age in North Carolina and the South and wanted to help the area avoid the pitfalls that England and New England experienced with industrialism. Instead of returning to Chicago to finish his doctorate, Graham attended the London School of Economics.

In 1925, Graham returned to Chapel Hill as an assistant professor and to put his energies into a variety of causes. He served as a member of the Citizens Library Movement, president of the North Carolina Conference for Social Services, and as a member of an industry committee to study and discuss worker compensation laws.

When the president of Chapel Hill resigned in 1930, Graham’s friends worked to get him the position, against his repeated protests. He received the appointment and served as the university’s president for 19 years. During his term, Graham engaged in many battles which he believed would better serve the university system and the state. Because his battles almost always were political, Graham was described simultaneously as the most respected and the most despised man in North Carolina.

One critique of Graham was his frequent absences from the University due to calls from Washington. During a nine-year period, President Roosevelt appointed him vice chairman of the Consumers Advisory Board, chairman of the Advisory Council on Economic Security, chairman of a committee to study vocational education, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Economic Conditions in the South, and a member of the National Defense Mediation Board. From 1942–1947, he was a member of the War Labor Board, the National Committee for the Medical School Survey, the Committee on Civil Rights, the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, and the United Nations Committee of Good Offices. Today, his spirit and legacy live on at Chapel Hill in the Frank Porter Graham Professorship in History.

In 1949, Graham was appointed senator for North Carolina. When he did not get elected to the Senate in 1950, he moved to New York and, for the next 16 years, worked for the United Nations.

Contributed by Chrissy Mason, The University of Texas at Austin


Ashby, W. 1980. Frank Porter Graham, a southern liberal. Winston-Salem, NC: J. F. Blair.

Pleasants, J. M., and A. M. Burns III. 1990. Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 senate race in North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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