Built by slaves in 1793, Old East is the oldest public university building in the United States. Today it serves as a student residence hall. The original cornerstone, along with its bronze commemorative plaque went missing at some point in the 19th century. Decades later, the plaque turned up--at the Clarksville Foundry and Machine Works in Tennessee. Since 1916, it has been back at UNC and is currently kept in Wilson Library.
Backstory and Context
The Right Worshipful William Richardson Davie, Grand Master of the most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Freemasons in the State of North Carolina, one of the trustees of the University of the said state, and a Commissioner of the same, assisted by the other commissioners and the Brethren of the Eagle and Independence Lodges, on the 12th day of October in the Year of Masonry 5793 and in the 18th year of the American Independence, laid the cornerstone of this edifice. (Quoted in DeRespino, below)
On the back side, a Latin inscription says the same in translation. The plaque owed its remarkable rescue to Thomas Foust, UNC alumnus (class of 1903) and owner of the Clarksville Foundry.
George Moses Horton (c. 1797-1883), known as the "Black Bard of UNC" would have been familiar with this building. Though born into slavery, Horton taught himself to read and published three books of poetry in his lifetime. He often visited campus and sold love poems to Chapel Hill students (prices ranging from 25 to 75 cents, depending on quality). Some of his work reflects his familiarity the university. His poem "The pleasures of a College life" opens with the lament:
With tears I leave these Academic bowers
And cease to cull the scientific flowers
With tears I hail the fair succeeding train
And take my exit with a breast of pain
(More of Horton's poetry is available at the link in 'sources' below).
DeRespino, Shannon. "The Strange History of the Old East Plaque." History on the Hill. September 07, 2016. Accessed February 15, 2017. https://blogs.lib.unc.edu/hill/index.php/2016/09/07/the-strange-history-of-the-old-east-plaque/.
"George Moses Horton." Documenting the American South. Originally in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, ed. William Powell. Accessed February 15, 2017. http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/hortonlife/bio.html.
Horton, George Moses. "The Pleasures of a College Life." 1836. Pettigrew Family Papers (#592), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Quoted in online exhibit Slavery and the Making of the University. Accessed February 15, 2017. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/exhibits/show/slavery/horton.
"Old East." Interactive Tour. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed February 15, 2017. http://www.unc.edu/interactive-tour/old-east/.