UNC’s racial history, modern Black leadership come together in book event

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.”

Author Geeta Kapur with Black Student Movement President Taliajah “Teddy” Vann and UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Lamar Richards.

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.”

“None of this belongs in our public schools.”

NC Governor calls for civility as school boards continue to draw fire over COVID precautions

Governor Roy Cooper said he is troubled by the fevered pitch many school board meetings have reached in recent weeks with parents and politicians fighting mask mandates and COVID precautions.

“Threats, bullying, intimidation. None of this belongs in our public schools particularly by adults,” said Cooper at a Tuesday press conference.

The governor said it is a small but vocal minority of adults showing up to fight mask requirements, and his administration is continuing to encourage all districts to keep the mask requirements in place while the spread of the coronavirus remains high.

“Being civil and respectful of others is more important than ever. Let’s behave the way we want our kids to act.”

North Carolina’s COVID-19 cases have been relatively level over the last few days. But the state is averaging 6,000 new cases each day with roughly 900 North Carolinians requiring intensive care unit beds for more than a month now.

Sec. Mandy Cohen

One-third of all COVID hospital admissions in the past week have been in North Carolinians under the age of 49.

“Our hospitals are strained. And in other states we’ve seen care is not readily available for people experiencing non-COVID life-threatening health crises,” cautioned Health and Human Services Sec. Mandy Cohen.

“We don’t want that to be the experience here.”

Secretary Cohen says vaccination remains the best tool for protection against the highly transmissible virus.

While 86% of North Carolinians 75 and older have now been vaccinated, that number drops down to 38% for the 12-17 age bracket.

“Those of us who interact with schools, need to get vaccinated if you are eligible, and need to wear a mask to prevent the spread of virus. Because the more virus that’s circulating, the more that’s going to end up in our schools,” warned Dr. Cohen.

While the focus remains on keeping students in the classroom for in-person learning during the pandemic, the governor said local districts can present a virtual option to the state school board before October 1st for consideration.

On Tuesday, Gov.Cooper also issued an open letter to the state’s faith community seeking their help in getting more people to roll-up their sleeves and get a COVID shot.

The letter encourages the faith community to sponsor events at their houses of worship and become “vaccine ambassadors.”

The letter reads in part:

Direct your congregation and faith community to trustworthy sources about COVID-19  vaccines, like doctors, other medical providers, and the NCDHHS website YourSpotYourShot.nc.gov. Good people are being misinformed. As a trusted spiritual leader, you can help those who have questions get accurate information. Help educate your community on why  and how to get vaccinated by:
• Posting and sharing vaccine information in common and highly visible areas in your house of
worship.
• Sending a letter or email to your congregants sharing resources that provide accurate
information about vaccines and encouraging people to avoid sharing misinformation on social
media.
• Talking to your congregation about why our faith calls upon us to protect our health and those
around us be getting vaccinated.
• Adding a message encouraging people to get vaccinated to your organization’s voicemail.

The appeal to churches comes as the latest CDC map still shows all North Carolina counties in the red zone with the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Johnston County Board of Education votes to keep mask mandate in place

The Johnston County Board of Education voted 4-3 Monday to continue to require students and staff to wear face masks.

The vote follows last week’s board meeting where dozens of parents rallied outside of the Johnson County Public Schools’ administrative building in Smithfield to demand the board lift the mandate.

New state law requires school boards to vote on masking policies each month.

The Johnston County school board delayed voting on its policy last week due to the absence of vice chairwoman Terri Sessoms, whose husband recently died.

Sessoms seconded the motion made by Kay Carroll to keep the masking policy in place and to create a committee to review COVID-19 metrics to determine when it’s safe to end the masking requirement.

“I believe that it’s vitally important that in the spirit of transparency that we have a metrics established so that parents know what that looks like and give them some hope that this is not forever,” Sessoms said.

School board members Lyn Andrews, Al Byrd  joined Carroll and Sessoms in voting to keep the mask mandate in place. Board members Michael Wooten, Ronald Johnson and Board Chairman Todd Sutton voted against keeping the mandate.

Johnson suggested that the board establish mask-free schools for students and school employees who don’t want to wear face coverings.

“It would take a lot of logistical work,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there’s people in the district right now watching [who are] rolling their eyes, not because I’m talking, but because the idea would create a significant amount of work.”

Meanwhile, Carroll said data shared by Dr. Rodney McCaskill, the chief medical officer at Johnston Health, makes it necessary to keep the making policy in place.

McCaskill told the board last week that the number of patients in the county’s hospital who are on life support has grown tenfold.

Mask opponents were joined at last week’s rally by U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Republican from Hendersonville, who has traveled the state asking boards to ignore Gov. Roy Cooper’s request that districts require face masks.

“It’s time to be fearless,” Cawthorn said. “It’s time to stand up to Roy Cooper and say that the family and individual freedom always comes for the government.”

Children’s experts: Investing in our state’s future starts with children not corporations

By Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt, Muffy Grant and Dr. Iheoma Iruka

To build a thriving North Carolina, we need a multiracial democracy, an inclusive economy, and a commitment to ensuring people across the state have access to the health care, education, and social support they need. To realize this vision, our state needs equitable public investments, including funding for early childhood education that supports our youngest residents and their families. As our state lawmakers continue negotiations in an attempt to come up with a budget that the House, Senate, and Governor can agree on, they have a responsibility to create a budget which prioritizes North Carolina’s children over out-of-state corporations.

But the proposals that have come out of the NC Senate and House so far don’t meet this standard — the Senate’s budget proposal would eliminate corporate income taxes, and while the House’s doesn’t go quite as far, it includes multiple tax changes that will ultimately prohibit North Carolina from realizing its potential. Both proposals also include changes to income taxes that would primarily benefit the wealthiest families: under the House proposal, 56 percent of the value of these changes would go to households with annual incomes over $110,000. These changes would cost our state about $2 billion in annual revenue, limiting our ability to make the public investments our communities need.

As experts in childhood development and child care, we know we know that early childhood education presents one of the strongest cases there is for public investment. Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman conducted groundbreaking research showing that investments in high-quality early childhood education yield a robust return on investment of 13 percent per child per year. These benefits come from improved outcomes that children see throughout their lives, including in educational attainment, health, and employment. Public investments in early childhood education even impact future generations and reduce intergenerational poverty.

It doesn’t work to provide child care only through the private sector. Licensed child care providers operate on the thinnest of margins, because families cannot afford the true cost of high quality care. Even so, parents are left shouldering annual fees significantly higher than public university tuition. We have tried other models for years, and it hasn’t worked. Early childhood education is a public good that needs public funding — like parks, libraries, and K-12 education.

Investments in early childhood education are also an investment in racial and gender equity in North Carolina. The vast majority of early childhood educators are women, and over half are Black women and other women of color. These educators are paid an average of just $11 per hour to nurture our youngest children. North Carolina has some programs that boost wages for educators, but legislators have cut funding for these and so only a limited number of people can access them. The recent budget proposals ask these educators to subsidize corporate tax cuts with their persistently low wages.

North Carolina’s motto is “To be rather than to seem.” If we want to live up to that motto to truly be a state that cares about our children’s future, here are three key actions to take: Read more

Best editorial of the weekend: Legislative leaders are wrong to defy the state courts

As a growing number of North Carolinians are becoming aware, our state appears to be headed for a constitutional showdown. At issue: whether the General Assembly can be compelled by the state courts to abide by the state constitution and provide schoolchildren with the sound basic education to which they are entitled under the landmark Leandro Supreme Court ruling.

Superior Court David Lee has approved a plan that was agreed to by the plaintiffs and lawyers representing the state in the litigation that lays out a spending/action plan to put the state in compliance with the mandate. Unfortunately and remarkably, GOP leaders at the General Assembly reject the authority of the judiciary to tell them what to do.

Yesterday’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer does a good job of summarizing the situation — both where things stand and, more importantly, why the lawmakers’ stance is so destructive and unreasonable. As it notes:

What should be a matter of simple decency and wise investment – adequate support for the education of children, especially those in low-income areas – is poised to become a constitutional collision between two branches of state government.

The defiance of legislators leaves a body to wonder just what other court directives regarding unconstitutional state action (or inaction) General Assembly leaders might be willing to ignore. After all, education isn’t the only area in which constitutional rights can necessitate additional state spending. What if the issue here was, say, prison overcrowding or access to public facilities for people with disabilities? Is it the position of legislative leaders that they can simply tell the courts of the state to go pound sand?

After exploring the takes of various constitutional experts on what might happen if lawmakers try to defy the courts, the editorial rightfully offers this assessment:

What’s particularly notable about this situation is the level of legislative defiance. There’s no need to confront the court like this. The remedial plan is well within the legislature’s capacity to comply.

The plan calls for the legislature to approve at least $5.6 billion in new education funding by 2028. The state has more than $6.5 billion in surplus funds in this year alone.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed two-year budget seeks to meet the plan’s initial cost, but budgets proposed by the House and Senate are well short. Legislative leaders are determined to hold that line, even as they propose more tax cuts.

A Republican-led legislature that has been quick to trim the powers of the governor and change the election of judges, now insists on the independence of the legislative branch. It’s another instance of Republican legislators who, rather than serving the law, expect the law to serve them, even at the expense of schoolchildren.

If Republican lawmakers defy Judge Lee, that should bring a verdict they can’t ignore from the court of public opinion.

Click here to explore the entire editorial.