UNC-Chapel Hill to install memorial to James Cates Jr., 52 years after campus killing

·3 min read
Town of Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill will install a permanent memorial to slain Chapel Hill resident James Cates Jr. in The Pit, an area outside its student union.

Cates, a 22-year-old Black man, died in 1970 when he was stabbed outside the student union after an all-night dance marathon.

Three members of a white supremacist motorcycle gang were charged with first-degree murder, The New York Times reported in 1971. They were acquitted by an all-white Orange County jury after less than two hours of deliberation, The N&O has reported.

The memorial was developed in close cooperation with the Cates family, and with student and staff input, university Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in a news release.

“This memorial honors James Cates and what his life meant to the University and Chapel Hill,” said David Boliek, chair of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. “Hopefully this will help bring our campus and community together.”

Known to many as “Baby Boy,” Cates lived in Northside, a historically Black neighborhood of Chapel Hill, before enrolling at UNC. He was raised by his grandmother, who worked in the university laundry, reported Journalist Mike Ogle, who has written extensively about Cates’ life. Cates’ cousin, State Sen. Valerie Foushee, attended the university four years later.

In 1970, only 2% of the student body was Black, Ogle reported. As a senior in high school, Ogle reported, Cates transferred to Chapel Hil High as part of the first year of full integration in Chapel Hill public schools.

More than half a century after his death, many in the UNC Chapel Hill community did not know about Cate, the Office of the Chancellor wrote in 2020.

Cates’ family, especially cousins Foushee and Nate Davis, have been at the center of growing community efforts to keep Cates’ memory alive.

Last summer, members of UNC’s Black Student Movement published a series of demands to the university, including the creation of a permanent memorial to Cates.

The group wrote that a memorial was necessary “to address the impactful and horrendous racial murder of James Cates at our university and honor the memory of a senselessly lost Black Chapel Hill community member and loved one,”

“This monument is long overdue for being erected on campus,” the group wrote.

Student activists placed a memorial plaque honoring Cates in The Pit in 2019, The Daily Tarheel reported. It was removed by the University for violating facilities use policies against termporary structures, the DTH reported.

The university also held a remembrance walk in 2020, on the 50th anniversary of Cates’ murder, followed by an all-day memorial at the Peace & Justice Plaza on Franklin Street.

The U.S. Department of Justice started investigating Cates’ death in March, The N&O previously reported. Investigations are open under the 2008 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, The N&O reported, which authorized the FBI to look into racially motivated murders from before 1970.

The monument represents a larger initiative to improve the university’s climate by earning community trust, Guskiewicz said.

In the past year, UNC has renamed two buildings named after white supremacists. They now instead commemorate the University’s first Black professor and Indigenous student.

Further details about the memorial, and about plans for a dedication ceremony, have not been announced.