Geeta Kapur, a civil rights attorney from North Carolina, is the author of the new book "To Drink From the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation's Oldest Public University." (Image via Geeta Kapur) Geeta Kapur
Geeta Kapur, a civil rights attorney from North Carolina, is the author of the new book "To Drink From the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation's Oldest Public University." (Image via Geeta Kapur)

The author of a new UNC history book explains how the school’s racist roots — enslaved people literally made the bricks for the first building — reflects on the turmoil of today. 

From Silent Sam to the recent Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has made news for all the wrong reasons in recent years. UNC’s critics say the school is missing the mark when it comes to issues of race and inclusion in the 21st century. 

“The nation finds itself shocked and stunned because the University of North Carolina is known as a beacon, as a lighthouse in the South of liberal thought and academic freedom,” said Geeta Kapur, UNC alumna and author of To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation’s Oldest Public University. “The veil over UNC is that it’s progressive. Very few people know what’s beneath the veil.”

Earlier this month, Black student leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill ripped off that veil, claiming that the university is “not safe for Black students.” This occurred the day after Nikole Hannah-Jones announced she would be taking a position at Howard University following a tumultuous battle with university leaders over a tenured position they offered, then rescinded, then offered again.

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Hannah-Jones is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and Pulitzer Prize winner who spearheaded the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which examined the role slavery and racism played in the nation’s founding through today.  

“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered on Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a statement. “Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it.”

Adding fuel to the fire, the University received criticism for the lackluster response to two white men brandishing Confederate flags, using racial slurs and sitting on top of the Unsung Founders Memorial, which was erected on campus in 2005 to commemorate the enslaved people who built the nation’s first public university. 

Cardinal & Pine spoke with Kapur about a few key points from the long history of racial issues at UNC-Chapel Hill. For more context and details, you can pre-order Kapur’s book which will be available Aug. 31. 

C&P: Based on UNC’s history, what are a few areas that you can pinpoint where UNC’s been the most problematic when it comes to racial issues?

Geeta: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the nation’s oldest public university and it has a long history of only doing the moral thing after being pushed, after struggle, and after being forced to do so. There are many instances throughout the University’s history that I don’t have time to go into all of them.

In 1983, the University acknowledged the need for a Black Cultural Center. A feasibility study that was conducted by the University revealed that 23,000 square feet were going to be needed for a Black Cultural Center. Well, the trustees did not like that idea. For years, the idea for a Black Cultural Center languished until it was opened in 900 square feet in the Student Union. 

It was basically shoved into the Student Union and this was only done because the University was forced to do so, largely in part by Dr. Sonja Haynes Stone who was a professor at the University. In fact, Dr. Stone, much like Nikole Hannah-Jones, fought the university tenure. However, her fight ended very tragically when she suffered from an aneurysm and died in 1991. 

Her death became a catalyst for students who loved her to fight for a free standing Black Cultural Center in her memory. In 1991, student protests began to mount at the University. The protests included football players, which made national news because the football players threatened to not play unless the Black Cultural Center was approved by the Board of Trustees. 

The protest even brought Rev. Jesse Jackson and Spike Lee to Chapel Hill. One student protest was in Chancellor Paul Hardin’s office. Students occupied his office, sat on the floor, and refused to leave. They sang songs, they read from the Bible. About 17 of them were arrested and that made national news as well. 

It was only after this push, struggle, and force that in 1993 the Board of Trustees approved a free-standing Black Cultural Center, but they did so begrudgingly because they told supporters they would have to raise all of the money to build it. It took supporters eight years to raise the millions of dollars that was needed to build the center and 21 years after the struggle had begun. In 1983, the Sonja Haynes Stone Center finally opened its doors in 2004.

C&P: From both the perspective of a historian and an alumna of UNC, what sentiments exist throughout the history of the school that makes it seem like the University is so hesitant to rectify these problem areas?

Geeta: The way that something begins is very determinative of its future trajectory. The University was chartered in 1789. The first Board of Trustees had 40 members on it and they were all white men. Thirty out of 40 of them were slaveholders. Several of them were the largest slaveholders in the state. So, from the very first meeting of the Board of Trustees, the University was under control of rich, powerful white men who were governors, senators, judges of the state courts, and justices of the US Supreme Court, and merchants. They were prominent, wealthy conservative men. 

In 1793, William Richardson Davie, who’s considered the father of the university, had a high honor to lay the cornerstone of the Old East building which is the first public university building in the country. When William Davie laid down the cornerstone with his sterling silver trowel, he also laid down the University’s legacy. 

Davie himself was a slave holder. He enslaved at least 36 people on his large plantation in Halifax County which is in the northeastern corridor of North Carolina. So as he laid down the cornerstone on the foundation, he laid down the legacy of white supremacy, human bondage and oppression, racism, racial injustice, and indifference to Black lives, literally cementing them into the University’s foundation. 

At that time, the Old East building had a two and a half foot brick foundation. Every one of those bricks was made by enslaved people and they laid those bricks. So brick by brick that University is built on the premise of white supremacy and racism and it’s become institutionalized in every part of the University. 

C&P: Based on the school’s track record and history, were you surprised by the way the Nikole Hannah-Jones situation played out?
Geeta: No, not at all. It was not surprising to me. It follows the trajectory of every instance where Black people demand freedom. There is a denial, then there’s a struggle. Either there’s a legal struggle where a lawsuit is filed or there’s a struggle by protest. Then, the University only does the moral thing after being forced to do so and they always do so begrudgingly.