'We have to confront our past': Students, alums react to UNC's plans for James Cates Jr. memorial

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Tuesday, August 16, 2022
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Just days before classes began, UNC shared plans to create a permanent memorial for James Cates Jr., who was killed on-campus in 1970.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Just days before classes began for the fall semester, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz shared plans to create a permanent memorial for James Cates Jr., a Chapel Hill man who was killed on-campus in 1970.

The 22-year-old, who lived near campus, attended a party and was stabbed to death by three members of a white supremacist biker gang outside the Student Union. The three men were charged with first-degree murder, and acquitted by an all-white jury.

In his letter to the university community, Guskiewicz called Cates Jr. "a victim of racial violence", adding they have worked closely with his family in creating the memorial.

"For so long, this university really since the beginning has been fraught with issues of racism and white supremacy. And his murder, his untimely murder, his undeserved murder, really just defined what it meant to be a Black person in this community, specifically at UNC-Chapel Hill," said Jarrah Faye, a senior at UNC who serves as President of the UNC-Chapel Hill branch of the NAACP.

"He was on-campus. He was invited on-campus. It was supposed to be a safe place for him. It ended up not being a safe place. So we have to confront our past otherwise we are doomed to repeat it," added Hugh Holston, a Greensboro City Council Member who serves as the Chair of the UNC Black Alumni Reunion.

The memorial will be at The Pit, a popular gathering spot on-campus.

"It just feels off that the Pit can be seen as a place for celebration of student life while also holding the blood of somebody who was murdered there as a direct act of white supremacy," said Faye. She acknowledged the university has made progress in addressing its past and creating a more inclusive environment, though believes more can be done, including increasing the number of Black faculty.

Other details about the memorial, including when it will be installed, have not been released, though Holston was hoping it was prior to next month's Black Alumni Reunion.

"It would be wonderful, wonderful for us to celebrate the life of James Cates and memorialize him in the Pit coming back together as a group," said Holston.

Four years after his death, Cates's cousin Valerie Foushee would attend UNC. Foushee, who now represents the district in the State Senate, shared a statement with fellow family members Mary Lee Campbell and Nate Davis, writing:

We were pleased to hear that the university is planning to recognize our beloved brother and cousin James Lewis Cates Jr. with a memorial. Similar to our sentiments about the cold case investigation that the U.S. Department of Justice opened this year, we are grateful for this development while also acknowledging our heartbreak that it has taken more than fifty years to get here.

As we contemplate the promise a memorial brings that James Cates's life will not be forgotten, we think of his mother, Eula, and his grandmother, Mrs. Annie Cates (a long-time UNC employee), who transitioned before this acknowledgment and proposed recognition.

Thank you to the many UNC students and community members who pushed to make this happen. We look forward to the day when the proposed memorial is installed and dedicated.