As a lawyer and civil rights activist, Geeta Kapur was well aware of racism in North Carolina. But she had a blind spot concerning the history of her alma mater.
That changed in 2010, when she attended an exhibit on the Black experience in the South at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library.
“It was called ‘We Shall Not Be Moved,’” Kapur said. “And I saw two black and white photographs. One was of the first African American law students at UNC. And the caption said that they had been admitted after a long court battle [in 1951]. Then there was another photograph of three young African American men sitting at The Old Well. And it said that they were admitted as undergraduates after a long court battle. They won on appeal in .”
Chapel Hill was the oldest public university in the nation, but Black students had only attended for 55 years. The school had fought to keep them out. Progress was only made because Black students were willing to fight until they won. These were the men who had fought to open the door to Carolina for 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 both my undergrad and my law school studies and I didn’t know this. I felt like this was never shown, never talked about. This history had been hidden from us.”
This month, Kapur will publish the book she began researching that day: “To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation’s Oldest University.”
It’s a story about the seldom discussed racial history of the university, but also a deeply personal one.
As a young woman of Indian, African and European descent, Kapur never really felt she belonged at Carolina. She had her own experiences with racism, sexism, xenophobia. But like a lot of students of color in elite white environments, she plowed ahead without dwelling on those things. Instead, she remembered the friends she made at the university, the parties she attended, the long hours studying that got her where she was.
In her days at Carolina, the school’s troubling racial history was all around. Buildings constructed by slaves and named for enslavers and avowed white supremacists. The Silent Sam Confederate monument, dedicated to those who had fought “in answer to the call of their country” to preserve a way of life that subjugated Black people. But somehow, until she was confronted with those black and white photographs in 2010, Kapur had never seen it so clearly.
With her eyes open, Kapur began to truly examine her university’s history. As a lawyer and adjunct law professor, she went first to the court cases. Then to the university records and archives. Finally, she found herself standing on the west side of the Chapel Hill Cemetery on the school’s campus, before a weathered grave in the small, segregated section for the Black dead.
There she read the inscription on a metal plate that paid tribute to Wilson Swain Caldwell, an enslaved person of UNC President David Swain.
Its words made Kapur feel ill.
“Here was laid the body of Wilson Caldwell
The Student’s friend and servant,
An exemplar of modest merit,
The best type of black man,
Who he sought to elevate by labor;
The solution of the race problem.
Mindful mainly of his duties,
His rights were cheerfully conceded.
Himself ever respectful, he was always respected
Diligence dignified his service,
Three generations of white men testify of his faithfulness.
Let him rest here till he’s ready for work again.”
Nothing about the school for Black children Caldwell founded after emancipation. No mention of his service on the Chapel Hill Board of Commissioners or as a Justice of the Peace. Just a testament to his faithfulness and service to white men.
When the school did acknowledge Caldwell at all, its references were full of sentiments about how well he was treated in slavery by the family who owned him and the white students he served before he was freed. That rose-colored version of history was and remains common when the university looks back at even the darkest part of its history, Kapur was to learn.
“I wanted to tell Wilson Caldwell’s story and all the stories that obviously weren’t being told,” Kapur said.
In doing so, Kapur found echoes of the same story playing out in every era of the school’s history – students and alumni having to fight long battles for incremental progress against entrenched and powerful white interests. What progress they did make was rarely celebrated and often covered up. When it was acknowledged, the school pointed to the work of Black students, alumni and faculty toward that change as evidence of the greatness of Carolina, without acknowledging how the institution often fought tooth and nail to prevent change.
Over the 11 years Kapur spent researching and writing her book, Chapel Hill has continued to struggle with acknowledging its racial history and the place of race in its present.
In 2015, the university’s Board of Trustees finally agreed to rename Saunders Hall, originally named for William Saunders – a Confederate colonel, UNC trustee and leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. After years of mounting pressure to remove his name, the trustees finally conceded. But the school stopped short of renaming it for Black anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, as many students and alumni asked. Instead, they opted for the more neutral “Carolina Hall.” The board then imposed a 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings on campus.
The ban was only lifted last year, as a movement swept the nation to remove racist names and monuments from the public square.
It was an overdue 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 this here in Chapel Hill over the years,” Guskiewicz said. “But our faculty, staff and students have pushed to make UNC better for decades — as have you, members of our board. But it’s clear that we’ve move too slowly at times. We haven’t done enough to be the campus community we aspire to be at times.”
Guskiewicz’s words came in the wake of the school’s disastrous handling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument, which was toppled by protestors in 2018 after years of failed efforts to legally remove the statue.
Some members of the conservative dominated UNC Board of Governors argued for re-erecting the statue. Instead, the UNC System, with help from administrators at Chapel Hill, secretly planned and settled a lawsuit over 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 undone by the same Orange County Superior Court judge who had initially approved it.
This year, the fight over the hiring and tenure of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, herself a prominent Black alumna, again brought the generations-long fight over history, race, politics at the university into the spotlight.
“I wasn’t surprised when any of that happened,” Kapur said. “This is just another chapter in the university’s long legacy that was laid down by General William Davie, on October 12 1789, when he laid down the cornerstone.”
“On that day, he stood on the foundation of Old East building days after he had himself sold a young enslaved girl named Dinah and bought an enslaved man named Joe,” Kapur said. “The bricks that he stood on had been made by enslaved people. The mortar that was used to hold the bricks, the limestone came from a site where the enslaved people found arrowheads and other other things that would have indicated that the land was Native American land that had been stolen.”
The enslaved people who made the day possible were not allowed to attend the enormous celebration, Kapur said. That was for white people only.
“Standing there, laying down that brick, he laid down the legacy and the foundation of white supremacy, racism and oppression of people of color that continues in various ways today,” Kapur said.
Kapur said she’s ready for criticisms of her book and the argument that it is divisive and counter-productive to surface the university’s racial history. But as arguments over race rage on local public school boards and on the overwhelmingly white boards governing Chapel Hill and the university system, she said there has never been a more important time.
“Facing this reality is hard,” Kapur said. “But it’s not just hard for white Americans. It’s even harder for people of color to face the fact that we have been oppressed, and then the oppression has been covered up. It’s been concealed. It’s been denied. And in, in a lot of cases, it’s been lied about. And here we are.”
“We need to have these conversations at UNC, in North Carolina and in America,” Kapur said. “That starts with really looking at the history.”