PW Exclusive: Author Geeta Kapur discusses his new book detailing the history and legacy of racism at UNC

As a lawyer and civil rights activist, Geeta Kapur was well aware of racism in North Carolina. But she had a blind spot when it came to the story of her alma mater.

That changed in 2010, when she attended an exhibit on the Black Experience in the South at the Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“It was called ‘We will not be displaced’,” Kapur said. “And I saw two black and white photographs. One was one of the first African-American law students at UNC. And the legend said they were admitted after a long legal battle [in 1951]. Then there was another photo of three young African American men. sitting at the old well. And he said they were admitted as undergraduates after a long legal battle. They won on appeal in [1955]. “

Chapel Hill was the oldest public university in the country, but black students had only been enrolled there for 55 years. The school had fought to prevent them from entering. Progress was only made because black students were willing to fight until they won. These are the men who fought to open Carolina’s door to Kapur, an immigrant born and raised in Kenya. But in her seven years at Carolina, she had never heard their stories.

“I was absolutely stunned,” Kapur said. “Because I had gone to UNC for my undergraduate and law school and didn’t know it. I felt like it had never been shown, never spoken of. This story had been hidden from us.

This month, Kapur will publish the book she began her research on that day: “Drinking from the well: the fight for racial equality at the country’s oldest university.” “

It’s a story about the rarely discussed racial history of the university, but also a deeply personal story.

As a young woman of Indian, African and European descent, Kapur never really felt out of place in Carolina. She has had her own experiences with racism, sexism, xenophobia. But like many students of color in elite white environments, she continued without dwelling on these things. Instead, she remembered the friends she made in college, the parties she attended, the long hours of study that got her where she was.

When she was in Carolina, the school’s troubling racial history was everywhere. Buildings built by slaves and named for declared slavers and white supremacists. The Silent Sam Confederate monument, dedicated to those who fought “in response to the call of their country” to preserve a way of life that subjugated blacks. But somehow, until she was confronted with those black and white photographs in 2010, Kapur had never seen it so clearly.

With his eyes open, Kapur began to really examine the history of his university. As a lawyer and adjunct law professor, she first became interested in court cases. Then to the archives and archives of the university. Finally, she found herself standing on the west side of Chapel Hill Cemetery on the school campus, in front of a weathered grave in the small section reserved for the black dead.

Wilson Caldwell (Photo: UNC Archives)

There she read the inscription on a metal plaque that paid homage to Wilson Swain Caldwell, a person enslaved by the president of the UNC, David Swain.

His words made Kapur ill.

“Here was deposited the body of Wilson Caldwell
The friend and servant of the Student,
An example of modest merit,
The best kind of black man,
That he sought to raise through work;
The solution to the race problem.
Mainly concerned with his duties,
His rights were happily granted to him.
Always respectful himself, he has always been respected
The diligence deserves its service,
Three generations of white men testify to his loyalty.
Let it rest here until it is ready to work again.

Nothing about the school for black children that Caldwell founded after emancipation. No mention of his service on the Chapel Hill Council of Commissioners or as a justice of the peace. Just a testament to his loyalty and service to white men.

When the school recognized Caldwell, his references were full of feelings about how he had been treated in slavery by the family who owned him and the white students he served before his release. This rosy version of the story was and remains common as the university delves into even the darkest part of its history Kapur had to learn.

“I wanted to tell the Wilson Caldwell story and all the stories that obviously weren’t being told,” Kapur said.

In doing so, Kapur found echoes of the same story unfolding throughout all eras of the school’s history – with students and alumni facing long battles for progressive progress against entrenched and powerful white interests. . The progress they made was rarely celebrated and often concealed. When recognized, the school highlighted the work of black students, alumni and faculty toward this change as proof of Carolina’s greatness, without acknowledging how the institution has often fought tooth and nail. to prevent change.

During Kapur’s 11 years researching and writing his book, Chapel Hill continued to struggle to recognize his racial history and the place of race in its present.

In 2015, the university’s board of directors finally agreed to rename Saunders Hall, originally named in honor of William Saunders, a Confederate colonel, administrator of the UNC and head of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. After years of increasing pressure to remove his name, the directors finally conceded. But the school failed to rename her to black anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, as requested by many students and alumni. Instead, they opted for the more neutral “Carolina Hall”. The council then imposed a 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings on campus.

The ban was lifted than last year, as a movement swept across the nation to remove racist names and monuments from the public square.

It was a late move, as UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz acknowledged in a speech to the board at the time.

“Systemic racism is part of institutions across our country and we have been challenged by it here in Chapel Hill over the years,” said Guskiewicz. “But our faculty, staff, and students have lobbied for better UNC for decades, as have you, our board members. But it is clear that sometimes we go too slowly. We haven’t done enough to be the college community we sometimes aspire to.

Guskiewicz’s comments came in the wake of the school’s disastrous handling of the Confederate ‘Silent Sam’ monument, which was toppled by protesters in 2018 after years of unsuccessful efforts to legally remove the statue.

Some members of the conservative-dominated UNC Board of Governors have called for the statue to be re-erected. Instead, the UNC system, with the help of the Chapel Hill administrators, secretly planned and settled a lawsuit regarding the statue with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans. The settlement not only gave the group the monument, but also $ 2.5 million in trust to care for it. After a legal challenge from students and alumni, the deal was ultimately overturned by the same Orange County Superior Court judge who originally approved it.

This year, the struggle for the hiring and tenure of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, herself a prominent black alumnus, once again shed light on the struggle of generations over history, race and status. politics at the university.

General William Davie (Photo: UNC archives)

“I wasn’t surprised when all of this happened,” Kapur said. “This is just another chapter in the long legacy of the university that was established by General William Davie on October 12, 1789, when he laid the cornerstone.”

“That day he stood on the foundations of the Old East building a few days after he himself sold a slave girl named Dinah and bought a slave man named Joe,” Kapur said. “The bricks he stood on had been made by slaves. The mortar that was used to hold the bricks, the limestone, came from a site where the slaves found arrowheads and other things that would have indicated that the land was Native American land that had been stolen.

The slaves who made the day possible were not allowed to attend the huge celebration, Kapur said. It was for whites only.

“Standing there, laying that brick, he laid the legacy and the foundation for white supremacy, racism and oppression of people of color that continues in various ways today,” Kapur said.

Kapur said she was ready for criticism of her book and the argument that it is divisive and counterproductive to bring up the racial history of the university. But as race arguments rage through local public school boards and over the extremely white boards governing Chapel Hill and the college system, she said there has never been a more important moment.

“Dealing with this reality is difficult,” Kapur said. “But it’s not just hard for white Americans. It is even harder for people of color to cope with the fact that we have been oppressed and then the oppression has been covered up. He was hidden. It was refused. And in many cases, we have lied. And here we are. “

“We need to have these conversations at UNC, North Carolina and America,” Kapur said. “It starts with really looking at history.”


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