This blog was written by SOHP undergraduate communications intern Bryan Smith.
In this article, I reference several individuals whose oral histories can be found in the SOHP’s archives. By clicking the hyperlinks in this post, a new SoundCloud window will open up, where you can play a portion of those interviews.
When I began writing this post, it had been almost 2 weeks since anyone had used the #UNCCalls4HurstonHall tag on Twitter. At the time I feared this represented a conclusion to the issue: the Department of Geography would remain housed in “Saunders” Hall, and the call for Hurston Hall would go unanswered. For the opponents of renaming the building, and for those who chose to ignore the issue, this would have been a victory. The argument that Saunders, chief organizer in the Ku Klux Klan or not (he certainly was), died in the late 19th century and was simply “a man of his time,” thus safely buffering UNC’s present and recent past from the taint of white supremacy, would have won out. In the subsequent weeks and months however, the rallies by the Unsung Founders Memorial and Silent Sam and the protests outside the building itself proved not to be solitary, transient blips on the radar indicative of life on UNC’s campus. Despite the controversy and unpopularity of revealing and labeling racism in the acts, people, and settings in which it persists, the movement has continued. This semester’s entire push is, in fact, already the product of decades of activism that is part of the ongoing fight to change UNC’s landscape to match the needs and spirit of its community. As an intern with the SOHP, I’ve had the opportunity to do my own part by researching some of the white supremacist events tied to UNC’s own history. In doing so, I’ve attempted to explore the patterns of white supremacy and response by the Black community.
Primarily, I’ve searched our archives to research two events in this web of white supremacy. The first of these was the invitation given to David Duke to speak at UNC in 1975. Duke, a Grand Dragon in the KKK at the time, was to give a speech in Memorial Hall, and was paid through student fees to do so. Insulted by this use of student fees, UNC’s Black Student Movement protested, as former member Paula Newsome recalls, through heckling until he was eventually shouted down from the stage. Cathy Stuart, a former co-president of the Campus Y, also remembers the event, but felt conflicted about the BSM’s response. In the context of the First Amendment and the overturning of the Speaker Ban Law less than a decade before, she says: “[…] don’t we defend the right for someone to speak–whatever it is–even if we don’t like it.”
Compare this to a second event that took place on UNC’s campus five years earlier in 1970. On November 21st of that year, a white supremacist motorcycle gang called the Stormtroopers killed a local Black student (though not a UNC student) named James Cates. On the night of the murder, UNC was hosting an all-night, integrated dance in the Student Union. Clashes between Black youths and the Stormtroopers had been occurring all night, but culminated fatally when Stormtroopers stabbed Cates after he pulled a straight razor during one of the fistfights. Initially, police prevented anyone from moving Cates to the hospital, resulting in his death in the back of a police cruiser at 3:30 that morning. Black youths in the Chapel Hill area retaliated by firebombing parts of the Northside community (the Institute of Pharmacy and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools Administration building). The Stormtroopers were brought to court, but the charges were ultimately dropped. Raney Norwood, a friend of Cates, recalls both the events leading up to Cates death and the subsequent firebombing of Northside and trial. Norwood is critical of the firebombing, while also acknowledging that peaceful protest was “not enough” in the face of injustice. Norwood also remembers James Cates death as the first time the Black community came together in Chapel Hill. The University’s response to James Cates’ murder is characterized by inaction. This is a fact remembered by Ashley Davis, a participant in the 1969 Food Worker Strike, as an example of the University’s leniency on violence committed or planned by white community members, especially students.
In researching these two events over the past semester, I’ve come to a couple of realizations. First, that the reactions to white supremacist actions associated with the University are almost always criticized or qualified in some capacity. That is, the legitimacy of Black community response always seems to be questioned. I’ve also discovered that white supremacist actions are poorly documented. They are talked about relatively infrequently, for example, in the life histories recorded in the SOHP’s archives. Outside of the archives, sources of information are limited to Daily Tar Heel articles, blog posts by authors that are impossible to contact, and fliers for memorializing events that are otherwise unrecorded. Together, I think that the struggles for legitimacy and memory form not only a stumbling block for scholarly research, but also for continued activism.
Now, as I reflect on Hurston Hall, this stumbling block is at the forefront of my thoughts. Since I’ve began working at the SOHP, I’ve listened to the oral histories numerous rebels, protestors, academics, and everyday people who have challenged my notions of what it means to be an activist and of my own activism. As I learned more and more, I would become frustrated; my internship (in addition to my classes and work) often felt like a time commitment that hindered my ability to be active myself. I’ve certainly gained a greater appreciation and respect for the activists who do manage to balance their personal, academic, and political lives, but I’m also now aware of the opportunities that the SOHP really afforded me. Encountering the past through the voices of those who lived it raised in me many of the questions I received when I’d report my findings to friends and family: “Was there really so much violence at UNC? How could that have happened? Why didn’t I know?” On a personal level, the SOHP showed me how remembering not only made me want to be a better activist, but be active, period. The SOHP has also shown me that the more people forget the less legitimate events feel. These are lessons I wish I’d learned earlier, and ones I hope to pass on. UNC continues to call for Hurston Hall; if we call for memory too, the number of active, passionate, and diverse students will swell until the University must heed it.
SOHP Communications Intern
Class of 2015