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