February has been a contentious month in the United States’ recent history of race relations.
In light of many disturbing and negative news stories — like the images of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam sporting blackface in his 1984 medical school yearbook and the UNC Chi Phi fraternity's Yackety Yak page including people clad in Ku Klux Klan robes — it’s refreshing to look back at the brave actions of individuals in Orange County who fought for civil rights, yet also important to remember its history.
The story begins with the University’s construction. UNC was largely built by slaves, including many of its original buildings like Old East and Old West. One can’t forget that much of this important university and the opportunities it affords arose out of the suffering of others.
Some students have taken it upon themselves to ensure that this aspect of the University’s history is not forgotten by commemorating the important role slaves and slavery played in the University’s construction. Kristen Marion and Elizabeth Brown initiated Wilson Caldwell Day, which had its third annual celebration Sunday.
Caldwell was a slave to the University’s second president, David Swain. Caldwell played a crucial role in persuading the Union Army not to burn down the University during the Civil War.
The oppression of Black people in Chapel Hill was not limited to the antebellum period. Julian Carr’s 1913 dedication speech to the Confederate monument, later known as Silent Sam, proudly illuminates some of the horrific treatment of Blacks during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras following the war.
The county is not foreign to the Southern history marred by Black lynchings. A Red Record, a UNC-led project, found that between 1865 and World War II, there were at least five lynchings or instances of unlawful, extrajudicial murder of Black people in the county. One of the victims, Manly McCauley, was lynched just three miles from Chapel Hill.
Throughout the 1960s, Black oppression and segregation persisted despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To protest segregation, students and community members staged peaceful sit-ins at many of Franklin Street’s segregated businesses. They were beaten and harassed, receiving little, if any, protection from law enforcement. A few years later, Charlie Scott broke ground by desegregating UNC basketball, becoming the first Black basketball player in 1967.
In 1969, food workers at Lenoir Hall, most of whom were Black, went on strike. Through the combined efforts of the Black Student Movement and several workers, food workers eventually received higher pay and better working conditions, bringing together activists and students to fight for racial and labor rights.
But the fight for civil rights did not end in the 1960s. Charlotte Fryar, a UNC doctoral student in the Department of American Studies, created the website, “Reclaiming the University of the People,” where she details the history of civil rights in Chapel Hill.
“I want people to understand the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill had a brief moment in the early Sixties, but that legacy has continued into the present day, and I feel like increasingly so,” Fryar said.
Black students continued to fight for a place on campus to grow awareness and appreciation for Black culture within the UNC community. After the Black Cultural Center was established in July 1988 in the Student Union, students and staff alike began calling for a freestanding center. The space was finally built in 2004, named the Stone Center for Sonja Haynes Stone.
After years of protest and more than a century after being erected, protesters toppled Silent Sam in August. While the statue’s future is still uncertain, to many, the statue’s toppling represents the removal of a tribute to white supremacy.
William Sturkey, who teaches the history of the civil rights movement at UNC, said he believes more needs to be done still.
“The University has moved forward in some ways with this issue of the Confederate monument,” Sturkey said. “But it’s really just a drop in the bucket compared to what probably needs to actually occur in this corner of the South in order to help us lead as the South tries to move beyond slavery and Jim Crow.”
Patrick Horn is the associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC. Horn believes groups like the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, led by community members who want to raise awareness of the county’s history, serve as a bright spot in the midst of negativity.
“Because the group brings together people from very different backgrounds, I think it’s encouraging,” Horn said. “It shows a form of collaboration between UNC and the local community.”
Though people associated the Civil Rights Movement in Chapel Hill with the 1960s, Fryar said people are continuing to draw on the legacy today.
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