Jun 10, 2009
Rebekah L. Cowell, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL - John "Yonni" Chapman has spent 40 years fighting for
For 29 of those years, he has also fought a personal battle with a
rare, chronic blood cancer that has now reached its final phase.
Today he writes and organizes the next generation of activists from
his quiet, book-lined home off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Limited physically, he must guide now instead of "do." In an
interview, he let his story unfold.
He was born to an unwed mother, adopted at 11 months by an affluent
couple from Shaker Heights, Ohio, where every morning the trolley
from Cleveland would carry black maids, butlers and cooks in past the
white businessmen with briefcases boarding that same trolley for the city.
By ninth grade, black youth were holding lunch counter sit-ins in the
South, and Chapman, encouraged by one his teachers, was tutoring
inner-city kids his own age.
"I was shocked to discover most of these kids could barely read,
write or do basic math," he said.
In 1964, Chapman asked to join civil rights workers in Mississippi
for the summer. Instead his mother arranged for him to spend six
weeks with an Episcopal youth group on the Standing Rock Indian
Reservation in South Dakota.
Chapman was surprised when instead of welcoming the visitors, the
Native Americans resented them. "At first I didn't understand," he
said, "[I] soon learned it was because we were patronizing them with
our do-gooder attitudes."
It's a lesson that sticks with Chapman today, whenever others look to
him on matters of race.
"I always try to make very clear that the leading and most critical
work of challenging institutional racism over many years has been the
achievement of black community, labor, and student organizations," he
said. "This has to be emphasized, because our cultural glorifies the
contributions of exceptional individuals and white people, generally."
Chapman earned his degree in history at Harvard, where he joined
Students for a Democratic Society, a student organization fighting
the Vietnam War and university expansion into nearby working class
communities of color.
Convinced he had to walk in worker's shoes, he took a job in the
Harvard kitchens and later attended the Atlanta Area Technical
School, where he honed his grassroots organizing. Stripped of his
privileged past and armed with technical training, Chapman made
Chapel Hill the next point on his journey in 1975.
He worked at N.C. Memorial Hospital as a laboratory assistant for 10
years. There Chapman, a white man with a Harvard degree, developed
solidarity with the Chapel Hill black community. Beginning with
cafeteria workers, Chapman organized weekly protests over wages and
He quickly became the employee rights chair, even as his cancer began
to limit his physical activism and demand he recruit those who could "do."
An accurate history
Guided by his hospital coworkers' stories, Chapman returned to
academics to research records and create an accurate account of
Chapel Hill's black community. He received his master's in history
from UNC in 1995.
The '90s saw a resurgence of black activism on campus, and Chapman
played a key role in the UNC Housekeepers Association's successful
push for higher wages, fairer treatment, and training programs.
"Yonni's greatest contribution to our case was figuring out the legal
and historical argument," said civil rights lawyer Al McSurely. "He
presented their history to the public and the university, whether
appreciated or not, and learning these facts goes a long way to
opening better communication between the races."
Chapman's leadership of a campaign from 2002-05 for a "moratorium and
dialogue" on the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award and the
university's 19th century support for "white supremacy," resulted in
replacing the Bell Award with three Chancellor's awards for the
"advancement of women."
Chapman's research demonstrated that Spencer, though a beloved
university icon and an advocate of higher education for white women,
was instrumental in the white supremacy campaign that overthrew
bi-racial Radical Reconstruction in the 1870s and forced the
university to close until 1875. The Campaign for a Moratorium and
Dialogue prodded Chancellor James Moeser to call for the first public
discussion about the university's historical involvement with
slavery, 19th century white supremacy, and Jim Crow.
Chapman "brings historical truth to UNC, Chapel Hill and the town not
only by documenting racism," said UNC sociologist Sherryl Kleinman,
"but also by bringing people together to recognize and celebrate the
contributions of black people."
Chapman is working through the NAACP to gain a civil rights memorial
for Chapel Hill and working to strengthen his relationships with his
children and friends. He has two daughters in graduate school at
Carolina, Sandi and Joyce, and a stepdaughter in New York, Naimah.
Soon he will undergo a high-risk operation to remove his spleen,
since there are no other medical treatments available for him.
As he awaits the surgery he continues to work to make sure the
lessons he's learned from 40 years are accessible to future
generations. He continues to reject the language of those who would
control the discussion.
"Civil rights" is a misnomer for the struggle today," he said. "I
don't focus on 'civil rights,' although that was the focus of my
thesis. Some academics today use the phrase 'the long civil rights
movement' to encompass racial justice struggles before and after the
early Sixties. It's good to widen the focus, but 'civil rights' is a
narrow and misleading term."
"We have civil rights; we don't have justice."
Rebekah Cowell is a freelance writer in Chatham County. Contact her
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE
For the past 15 years, John "Yonni" Chapman has been a leader on
campus and in the community challenging institutional racism,
fighting for labor rights, environmental justice, and honest history
In 1995, Chapman earned a master's degree in history from UNC. He
titled his thesis, "Second Generation: Black Youth and the Origins of
the Chapel Hill Civil Rights Movement." Building on this work, he
discovered and documented the struggles of black workers at UNC in
his dissertation, "Black Freedom and the University of North
Carolina, 1793-1960." His 2006 dissertation, is used in university
history classes, the local public schools, and by the state NAACP. It
stands as a 200+ page document to further future racial justice
research and organizing.