Wilson Caldwell was a well-known slave in Chapel Hill and a wonderful employee for the University of North Carolina. Wilson Caldwell was a janitor for the university as well as being a friend to all he met (Peele). Born on February 27, 1841 in Chapel Hill, Wilson Caldwell was born to Rosa Burgess and November Caldwell also known as Doctor November. Wilson’s childhood was not that of an average slave. He had much more freedom than other young slaves his age. Owned by the Swain family, Wilson and his parents were treated well by the kind family.

As a young man, Wilson worked the Swain’s son as a groundskeeper for the university. After eight years keeping that job, he became a waiter and janitor for the dormitories and lecture halls. After the Civil War, Wilson was appointed as Justice of the Peace and held the position for one year. After releasing his post, Caldwell became County Superintendent of Public Schools and took over a “free school for colored children in Chapel Hill (Battle 6).” He also was a principle for a similar school in Elizabeth City. After passing a superintendent examination, he could be paid a larger salary. When the University reopened, Caldwell took back his former position working for the University of North Carolina. Unsatisfied with his wages, Wilson moved to Durham looking for work with a higher salary. Unfortunately, he did not find what he was looking for and after returning to Chapel Hill he proclaimed that the reason for his return was that “Durham is not a place for a literary man (Battle 7).”

Edwin Caldwell was the son of Wilson Caldwell and Susan Kirby. There are discrepancies whether his name was Edward or Edwin. On his gravestone, his name reads “Edwin” but on several census records, he is referred to as “Edward.” He had eight other brothers and sisters, but several of them died early. According to the 1880 census record, only four children are listed as living, but this could be because some of them had not been born yet.

Edwin Caldwell studied medicine at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC. His medical school experience would have been very different from what people experience today in our modern society. First, Caldwell was an African-American and son of a former slave. He would have been treated very different than many people of the same descent are treated today. Second, medical school as a whole was very different from medical school today. They studied seven main courses: “anatomy; physiology and pathology; materia medica, therapeutics, and pharmacy; chemistry and medical jurisprudence; theory and practice of medicine; principles and practice of surgery; and obstetrics and the diseases of women and children (Gale Encyclopedia).”  During the mid eighteenth century, medical schools focused on lecturing and having the students memorize facts rather than problem-solving issues in a lab. But change was happening, Europe began to reinvent the medical field by focusing on learning in the lab. They wanted their doctors to be problem solvers rather than memorizers. “Students were to be active participants in their learning, not passive observers as before (Gale).” Reform moved through American medical schools, starting at Harvard University. These colleges were to become research institutions in addition to being places of learning. They were to train people in becoming physicians along with “the discovery of new knowledge through research (Gale).” This redefined medical school as the colleges began to partner with other hospitals to increase learning. Many of these things mentioned would have been happening in Raleigh, North Carolina also. Shaw University was founded in 1865 by Dr. Henry Martin Tupper for recently emancipated slaves. For four years the university was known as the Raleigh Institute and then changed its name to Shaw University after Elijah Shaw gave funds to build the University’s first building. In 1885, Shaw University became the first institution in the South to educated black physicians and pharmacists (Thomas). This university gave Caldwell the opportunity to become a physician. After completing his education he moved to Arkansas and started a practice there.

According to the 1930 census, Edwin Caldwell is listed as “Edward Caldwell” and is married to a woman named Minnie. In another article about Edwin Caldwell, there is a small piece of information about him where it says that he is married to a woman named Pearl. This woman is supposed to have run a boarding house in Chapel Hill and married the young physician when she was also young. In the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, where Caldwell is buried, Minnie S. Caldwell occupies the plot next to him. This would lead one to believe that Minnie is his wife at his death. It is possible that he could have been married to Pearl, maybe when he was younger, but no census records were found where he was listed as married to anyone but Minnie. Minnie Caldwell, formerly Minnie Stroud was first married to Edwin’s brother Bruce. After marrying his brother’s widow, he helped her to raise her other children and the pair later had a child of their own and named her Julia. This would be correct, as Julia is the last family member listed on the census, therefore meaning the pair did not have any other children together. As for Pearl, not much is know of her relation to the Caldwell family other than she allegedly being married to Edwin. Based on the information found, Minnie was Edwin’s wife and the woman he shared most of his life with.

According to the free dictionary pellagra is defined as, “disease caused by a deficiency of niacin and protein in the diet and characterized by skin eruptions, digestive and nervous system disturbances, and eventual mental deterioration.” Dr. Edwin Caldwell worked with the disease pellagra as he saw African-Americans living in poverty contracting the disease. In 1906, the first person died from pellagra in Durham, but not until 1910 did the disease start to catch people’s attention (Anderson 213). Having pellagra was disgraceful to a family because it was a disease associated with poverty. Affluent families did not want others to know if a family member died from the disease (Anderson 213). Other doctors worked with the disease looking for cures for their patients, but Dr. Caldwell’s prescription worked the best. “He prescribed lean meat, fresh vegetables and milk (Anderson 213).” His cure worked and soon white Americans living in Chapel Hill had him come to their houses when their family members were sick. Caldwell attributed the disease in African- Americans to poverty. They ate a diet of cornmeal, grits, fatback etc that did not give them enough nutrition (Anderson 213). Unfortunately, Caldwell is not credited openly with the cure for pellagra. Many times American or European men are credited with the cure. The culture of the early twentieth century credited a white man with the cure over the black physician from Chapel Hill. This is an example of how far our society has come with issues of race.

Dr. Edwin Caldwell was a man who lived a quiet life. Not much is known of him and his life, but what we do know is quite remarkable. He found a cure to the deadly disease pellagra and helped poorer people to cure them from it.



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pellagra. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved December 2 2013 from

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Thomas, H. (n.d.). Shaw university: The first historically black university in the south. Retrieved from




–by S.S.