Black History Month Hero: Harvey Elliott Beech
To mark Black History Month, we are focusing on the inspiring stories of Black North Carolina lawyers who pursued justice in the courtroom while fighting racial injustice on all fronts.
NCAJ members who read Geeta Kapur’s “To Drink From the Well” or participated in our recent Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Book Club discussions met a wide range of heroic figures in Kapur’s history. Subtitled “The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation’s Oldest Public University,” the book is an unflinching look at how UNC benefited from systemic racism and fought to resist racial integration and the recognition of equal rights throughout its history.
Among the standouts in Kapur’s book is Harvey Elliott Beech, the first Black graduate of UNC School of Law. A familiar figure to most UNC law alums, Beech entered UNC School of Law with four other Black students in the summer of 1951 despite the university’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to bar their entry. Beech said he was inspired to become a lawyer when, as a boy growing up in Kinston, he could not fathom how Lady Justice could perch atop the courthouse while “White” and “Colored” signs guarded the water fountains in front of it.
“Beech stood there and struggled in his young mind to reconcile the ‘great hypocrisy’ between Lady Justice’s promise of equal justice to all and those segregated water fountains,” Kapur writes.
Her stories of Beech rely on several sources, including a fabulous interview of him in the Carolina Law Oral History Project in which he describes his years as a young man in Kinston, how $50 he won playing the numbers helped him get to Atlanta and enroll in Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King Jr. was a classmate, and the fear and humiliation he endured as a law student integrating UNC.
Beech remained a strong supporter of UNC throughout his long career as a lawyer and civic leader in Kinston and throughout North Carolina. He was a member of the Board of Visitors and the law school’s alumni board.
A tribute to him in the Carolina Alumni Review upon his death in 2005 recalled how Beech wished he had not needed to be the first Black UNC Law graduate but he knew when he got to the law school that it had to be done.
“I just felt like we ought to open up all the windows and doors and air it all out,” Beech said. “If I hadn’t, some other child would have had to. Something had to be done – it wasn’t pleasant. We won a war for something that had been denied to other black boys.”