UNC-Chapel Hill alumna Geeta Kapur brought together the school’s troubling racial history history and the new generation of Black student leaders Tuesday in an on-campus event for her new book, “To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation’s Oldest University.”
The book, released this month, is the result of more than a decade of research that began after Kapur’s undergraduate and law school years at Chapel Hill. During that time, Kapur says, she never thought about the fact that the nation’s first public university was built by slaves or that Black students had to fight for decades simply to be admitted. In writing the book, she said she was shocked and saddened by the school’s long efforts to cover up its history of racism and how those efforts continue today.
On Tuesday, Kapur told students at the event that she had been waiting for the book’s release a long time – and sometimes doubted she could finish it.
“There were many times I wanted to give up because it was too painful and it was costing me too much,” Kapur said. ” I didn’t know any of you students who were here, but I knew you were here. And I knew I owed it to you all.”
Kapur was joined Tuesday by state NAACP President Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Lamar Richards and Black Student Movement President Taliajah “Teddy” Vann. Spearman, a leader of the Moral Monday movement, connected the struggles of the first Black students at Carolina to the recent struggles over the Silent Sam Confederate monument and the school’s failed hiring of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“The history is painful,” Spearman said of Kapur’s book. “In many instances, the history is hideous. But for those who have eyes to see, the history is also very, very beautiful.”
That’s because despite slavery, discrimination, violence and oppression that runs from the university’s founding up to today, Spearman said, Black people have continued to fight for their place at Carolina and to thrive there. Kapur’s scholarship calls on the community to continue that fight, Spearman said.
“If I have the power to make a demand, that you would rise up with more force than you have to this point, and you make sure that you do not rest content until you are to establish a new campus here at UNC-Chapel Hill,” Spearman said.
Richards and Vann represent the current movement, Kapur and Spearman said. In their remarks, they talked about the current struggle and its place in the history Kapur outlines in her book.
“That history began with the first brick laid to create Old East, the first building on this campus, by our enslaved ancestors whose blood permanently stains this university’s grounds,” Vann said. “It continues today as the university fails in its duty to protect Black students who are here now. It continues to fail at protecting our ancestors even in death, allowing Confederates to desecrate the monuments that we built to them mere months ago. As Black students continue to suffer and have the demands that are core to our safety ignored.”
“And we will continue to be unless we begin to shine light on what this university does when they think that no one is watching,” Vann said. “I think that’s the beautiful part about Geeta’s narrative. It’s a beautiful opportunity for all of us to be able to truly see what goes on behind the veil. We’re fighting for the same things our ancestors wanted.”
Richards addressed the controversy over the university’s failed hiring of Hannah-Jones and the tenure controversy during which he played a key part in getting a vote from the school’s Board of Trustees.
During that fight Richards said he couldn’t encourage Black students to come to Carolina in the current environment.
“This summer my statements encouraging other Black students not to attend UNC made national headlines,” Richards said. “Yet I stayed. And I’m sure many of you wondered why. Why would this person who told others to leave, choose stay?”
“The reality is, the forces that bind my people to UNC are the same forces that kept our people on the Underground Railroad even when they couldn’t see daylight,” Richards said. “It’s the same force that kept Black families going from bank to bank in the 60s and the early 70s, applying for mortgages even after they received ‘no’ after ‘no.’ And it’s the same force that that led Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones to fight for tenure at a university that only gave her disrespect in return.”
“What binds me to this place is the pain and perseverance of my people as they forged together the foundation of public education in America, building the very buildings that we now learn in at Carolina brick by brick,” Richards said. “It is the same pleading force that allowed my uneducated great-grandmother to raise children who became doctors and lawyers. It is the love of our people, the aspiration of something greater, the need to be bigger, to be better, the need to survive.”
Richards said Kapur’s book should inspire all those who read it to be moved by that force.
“May this wonderful work of literature set a blaze to every hiding crevice of oppression, racism and hatred at this University,” Richards said. “And draw upon us a new day to live, breathe and work for a university that we all truly know and love.”
The emotional climax of Tuesday’s event came as Kapur read from her book the names and occupations of slaves known to have built, repaired and worked for the university.
Kapur lingered on the name of Emily, a washer-woman and seamstress for students at the university in 1846.
“I wonder what dreams she had for her own children as she washed the clothes of white students at this campus and sewed the clothes of white students at this campus,” Kapur said.
In an invocation to the spirits of those who labored for the university as slaves, Kapur they should know their lives and their pain meant something.
Their spiritual sons and daughters — from civil rights warrior Julius Chambers and basketball legend Michael Jordan to Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones and Kizzmekia Corbett, a key developer of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine — thrived at Carolina and beyond.
“I believe we are surrounded today by a great cloud of witnesses hovering above us,” Kapur said. “To the ancestors who surround us, we are here to honor you today and to say your labor was not in vain.”