Cornelia Phillips Spencer (1825 – 1908)

Written By Shane Williams



 Cornelia Phillips Spencer was born on March 20, 1825 in Harlem, New York to James Phillips and Judith Vermeule Phillips. Her father had immigrated to the United States from England in the late 1700s and later moved his family to Chapel Hill in 1826.  Spencer was one year old at the time, and Phillips held a job as chair of the university’s mathematics board. Spencer’s mother Judith had no formal education and was self-educated. She was an esteemed woman and maintained contacts with many prominent people including President of UNC and former governor of North Carolina, David Lowry Swain.


Spencer and her brothers Charles and Samuel grew up on the UNC campus. Her brothers both received degrees from UNC, but Spencer, as a woman, was not allowed to attend the university. Her gifted abilities as a poet and writer and her overall knowledge of literature and current events were not enough for admission.  During this time, Spencer described Chapel Hill as “the remotest town of the quietest county of the most backward old State in the Union.”


In her late twenties Spencer met law student James Munroe Spencer, and they were wed in 1855. The two lived in Alabama where James practiced law, and a daughter, Julia James, was born to their union in 1859.  James’s health was in quick decline, and by 1861 he passed away, leading Spencer to move back with her family in Chapel Hill. Because of the upheaval with the War Between the States, Spencer had a difficult time maintaining her job as a tutor of young children. As the war went on Spencer gathered material for a book project proposed by Governor Zebulon B. Vance. The work was titled “The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina,” and was published in 1868. The book presented insight into the last three months of the Civil War.


Because of the changing faculty of UNC Chapel Hill—a group that Spencer regarded as corrupt carpetbaggers and political opportunists, she left Chapel Hill.  After receiving encouraging words from friends to fight for the school, she decided to stay.  The University of North Carolina suffered after the Civil War and experienced a decline in enrolled students.  Even though the war had ended, Union forces continued occupying her hometown Chapel Hill. Spencer believed that the Union military forces had little respect for the country’s first state college. Union soldiers even stationed their horses in the library of the school’s basement. Spencer began to criticize President Solomon Pool and his close associates. Her remarks were published to remind citizens of the colleges excellence since its founding and its decline under the Pool leadership. Buildings were neglected, trees were unkept, and the school’s finances were in arrears. Spencer also wrote to prominent alumni and close friends of the school highlighting the poor administration at Chapel Hill. Spencer’s efforts were successful and in February of 1871 the trustees decided to close the school and Pool was removed by court order.


Spencer focused her energies on reopening UNC, so she began writing pieces for numerous publications and sending letters to prominent state officials and alumni.  Her articles appeared in the North Carolina Presbyterian, the Sentinel and the Wilmington Journal. Spencer was also successful in writing biographical pieces for A Biographical History of North Carolina by Samuel A. Ashe. Her numerous articles were featured in the University of North Carolina Magazine from 1853 to 1900 which established Spencer as a gifted historical writer.


After months of her campaign, on March 20, 1875 she received a telegram that the General Assembly passed a bill for the school’s reestablishment. The university reopened on September 15, 1875 with a new board of trustees and Spencer sang a self-authored hymn and rang the campus bell for thirty minutes in delight.


Four years later, Spencer edited the Chapel Hill Ledger, in which she published in installments her 1888 history First Steps in North Carolina.  Spencer also wrote on environmental, educational, and women’s issues.


In 1895 Spencer moved in with her daughter in Massachusetts where she lived the last decade of her life. In 1895, the University of North Carolina awarded her with an honorary L.L.D degree—the highest of UNCs honorary degrees.


Spencer died in March of 1908 in Cambridge.  When she passed away, reports say that she was holding a picture of the UNC campus. She was buried at Chapel Hill.  In her honor, her son-in-law James Lee Love established The Cornelia P. Spencer Alumni Fund.