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Column: Steel and stone can’t replace what Black students bring to campus life

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Sophomore DJ Chris Williams plays music in the Pit for "Pit Poppin Fridays," a gathering of Black students on the sunny Friday morning of March 24, 2023.

Content Warning: This article contains mention of racially-motivated violence.

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Around noon on Feb. 24, I looked up from my computer to see a crowd of predominantly Black UNC students doing the cupid shuffle outside the Student Union. As I am obligated to do whenever I hear the “Cupid Shuffle,” I joined in. We danced, we sang. Every so often, though, I caught a glimpse of the James Lewis Cates Jr. memorial between the breaks in the crowd.

Cates, a Chapel Hill resident, was stabbed outside of the Union by the Storm Troopers, a Nazi-themed motorcycle gang, in November of 1970. Officers at the scene did not let anyone move Cates’ bleeding body and, after finally being taken to the hospital, he died due to blood loss.

Through years of activism by various organizations – such as the Black Student Movement and the James Cates Remembrance Coalition – a collective of Cates’ family members, community leaders, scholars, activists and students, the University installed a permanent memorial for Cates in the Pit late last year. 

While the memorial is a huge step forward in recognizing UNC's racial history, it doesn’t replace the physical and emotional support that comes when Black students actually take up space together. The weekly recurrence of "Pit Poppin' Fridays," an informal event hosted midday with music playing and Black students convening, speaks to the value we place on togetherness.

On Nov. 21, 2020, the community marched in remembrance of Cates’ death that started at the Hargraves Community Center and ended at the Peace and Justice Plaza. On Nov. 21, 2022, a ceremony was held on campus for the installment of Cates’ memorial. Community figures such as Cates’ cousin, Congressperson Valerie Foushee, and Student Body President Taliajah "Teddy" Vann spoke at the ceremony. The Voices of Praise Gospel Choir performed and then family members laid flowers by the memorial. 

This kind of gathering gives life to the steel and stone history, as ugly or beautiful as it is, that exists on campus, and it allows us to celebrate and mourn it together.

“The Pit became a huge place of trauma for me,” says Jadyn Jones, a former UNC student who learned about Cates from another student. She and other students started their own efforts to raise awareness on campus. They wanted to do a press conference, informational sessions and other events to garner attention. They also planned to install demonstrations to tell the story of Cates' murder. Jones mentioned an installation of a broom sweeping up red paint to represent Cates’ blood being swept from the bricks. While plans fell through, the desire from the students was there.

“There were a bunch of people who were on board and were excited,” Jones says.

This speaks to the strength of the Black community on campus, and the long-standing tradition of Pit Poppin' Fridays speaks to its continuation. 

A huge crowd came out for the last Pit Poppin' Friday of Black History Month. Black Greek organizations came to dance, Black student-owned businesses showed up selling their products and, for hours, Black footsteps trampled over bricks where Black blood had spilled so many years before.

Gathering doesn’t just provide emotional support, but also material support for students. I talked to Nicholas Fantauzzi, co-founder of the Black-centered fashion club Xpressions, at Pit Poppin' Friday about the club being a place for Black students to network. 

As Xpressions has grown, Fantauzzi attributes a lot of its success to the hard work of other students and organizations. He mentioned collaborations with BSM, the Organization For African Students' Interests And Solidarity and One Africa.

“When I talk about Xpressions, it’s not an ‘I’ thing,” Fantauzzi says.

Whether the end result is reconciling, networking or just fun, it is during these gatherings that knowledge is shared among the community, and with that knowledge, comes power.

When I saw and read Cates’ memorial plaque for the first time, I felt alone. I had to discover that painful history by myself. The reason we have these physical reminders is to connect what happened in the past to what is happening right now. 

You can still join the Black Greek organizations honored in The National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza on South Campus. People still fight for the victims of police brutality, written in stone on the second floor of the Union. 

Without these elements of connection across time and space, these memories feel empty. Honoring Cates does not and should not stop at the memorial. Every year, on November 21, is an opportunity for the community to gather, mourn and remember together.

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@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com