Frank Porter Graham (1886–1972)

Written By Shane Williams

Graham was born in Fayetteville in 1886 to Alexander and Katherine Sloan. Graham’s father was superintendent of Charlotte public schools for twenty-five years. Graham later attended the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1909. He went on to UNC law school and graduated, but he never practiced. After law school, Graham attended Columbia University and earned a Masters in history in 1916.

Graham served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War I but returned to UNC Chapel Hill as an assistant professor and dean of students. During this time, Graham espoused progressive views supporting trade unions, public welfare, protection of free speech and better labor conditions. In 1925, Graham was appointed as associate professor and in 1927, became a full professor of history. Graham was one of the university’s most esteemed faculty members. As such, he attracted a large student following that considered his passionate approach to history inspiring.

In 1930, Graham was elected as president of UNC-Chapel Hill. He held this position until 1949. Graham’s tenure occurred during the Great Depression and World War 11. During this time, Graham worked vigorously to obtain scholarships and financial support for students who could not afford college. During this time, Graham also devoted his time to helping the poor; he was president of the North Carolina Conference for Social Service. He participated in several organizations that promoted social justice and served as chairman of the National Advisory Council on Social Security.

In 1946, President Truman appointed Graham to the Committee on Civil Rights. The Committee advocated that Congress pass laws to combat, police brutality, discrimination, and abolish several voting requirements. In 1947 Graham was asked to serve as a U.S. representative on the United Nations Committee. Meanwhile, Graham also was president of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies.

In 1949, North Carolina governor Kerr Scott appointed Graham to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. In the 1950 Democratic primary, Graham ran against former Senator Robert Reynolds and former NC speaker of the House Willis Smith. Losing an initial lead, Graham was unable to attain the majority of votes in the Democratic primary. He lost in the second primary to Willis Smith. Many voters did not appreciate his liberal positions regarding civil rights and desegregation.

After Graham’s brief stint in political office, he served as defense manpower administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor in 1951. He then served as a UN representative, overseeing the conflict between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. Graham strongly believed that the UN played a pivotal role in securing peace across the globe. In 1962, Graham became a member on the board of Trustees for the Southern Regional Council. Graham wrote a declaration supporting the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. Graham’s lengthy and influential career included over twenty honorary degrees from colleges including Catawba, Duke, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and North Carolina A&T.

Graham died in 1972 at the age of 85. He was buried at the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. Graham was married to Marian Drane until her demise in 1967. The student union building at UNC Chapel Hill is named after Graham as well as the Frank Porter Graham Building at UNC Greensboro.