By Mike Ogle
Mike Ogle is a Pine Knolls resident and UNC alum. His views are his own.
Opponents of UNC’s Confederate monument, known colloquially as Silent Sam, often point out that the statue was erected in 1913, half a century after the Civil War. The reasoning is obvious. If the purpose behind perching a bronze soldier atop a pedestal at the gateway to campus had simply been to honor students who died, why did it take 48 years? The answer of course is that the aims of UNC’s Confederate monument, like others planted across America, went well beyond memorializing the dead, as primary source historical documents show. Many of these monuments were erected as part of the Lost Cause campaign during the height of Jim Crow and a resurgence of an especially violent strain of white supremacy. Others sprouted in response to brewing demands for civil rights. These monuments were more statements of their times than on the time of the Civil War. They say more about their erectors than what they were ostensibly erected for.
The same could be said of any public recognition that comes well after the fact. And 2017 has seen a flurry of acknowledgments by Chapel Hill of events that took place, like with the Confederate monument, a half century ago. In the spring, the new Freedom Fighters Gateway was unveiled at the corner of Rosemary and Roberson streets. The Gateway is a powerful reminder in photographs of the arduous struggle endured by Northside residents in the 1960s. But the Gateway is also a product its time, the impetus being that today’s Northside residents felt their neighborhood slipping away, and fast. The Gateway is a marker meant for the modern day.
Recently, two more recognitions of the local civil rights movement emerged. In August, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, in issuing a statement advocating the removal of UNC’s Confederate monument, went a step further: “… Our Chamber of Commerce acknowledges and apologizes for opposing the integration of public accommodations in Chapel Hill and we regret our role in supporting segregation that did not end until ordered so by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” (The town’s government declined to integrate its businesses on more than one occasion in the 1960s, in no small part due to pressure from the business community.)
Then in September, Chapel Hill’s mayor announced the forming of the Historic Civil Rights Commemoration Task Force. The mission of the task force is to collect information about the 1960s struggle in Chapel Hill and to amplify this piece of local history. The mayor’s statement explained that the Freedom Fighters Gateway and resulting conversations had sparked the creation of this task force.
Both recent efforts are welcomed and appreciated. However, what goes unsaid are two important things. One is that far too many people in Chapel Hill are unaware of the ugly and hateful resistance its black community faced while demonstrating for the end of Whites Only restaurants, theaters, and bars. (And that’s not even delving into the other aspects of local racial history.) When protestors began picketing outside of College Cafe on Franklin Street, for example, the restaurant’s segregationist owner complained: “Land of the free — for whom? Must not be free for me.” Many white locals agreed, soon filling College Cafe’s tables with such a glut in a show of solidarity that the kitchen sold out of food. And Chapel Hill’s resistance to change went far beyond nonsensical retorts and inaction from Town Hall. It included spit and urine, blood and ammonia and bleach. It also included UNC discouraging students who joined the protestors’ cause by alerting their parents, as well as by dangling scholarship money. These inconvenient truths do not align with Chapel Hill’s progressive image.
The second thing unsaid is that the Chamber of Commerce’s apology and the town’s formation of a task force a half century later happened because of 2017, not because of the 1960s. It is fair to speculate that these acts wouldn’t have occurred if racial fissures across the country were not currently so visible and wide. Had the last presidential election gone the other way, a half-century of evidence suggests that Chapel Hill would’ve carried on as though all was well and always had been. Like with UNC’s Confederate monument, these public remembrances have more to do with now than with what happened back then.
But folks of Northside and Pine Knolls and Chapel Hill’s other historically black communities did not need 2017, nor for a white supremacist rally at a Confederate statue in Charlottesville to result in death, to remember the 1960s here. So why did the rest of Chapel Hill? One answer to that riddle can be found in how another historical fact of Chapel Hill is framed.
In 1969, following all the civil rights unrest here, Chapel Hill elected Howard Lee mayor. That event is typically framed as such: Chapel Hill became the first predominantly white town in the South to elect a black mayor. But the following framing is also true: Chapel Hill has not elected a black mayor since him.*
Perhaps if the latter were not true, Chapel Hill wouldn’t have required such a boiling 2017 in America to recall what had taken place here a half century before.
* Since Lee was from Georgia and relatively new to town, no black Chapel Hill native has ever been mayor. He was elected three times, serving six years as mayor. Lee lived in a white neighborhood, which his family integrated, and the nasty resistance they faced while finding a home, in part, spurred him to run for mayor.