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Mike Ogle @mikeogling
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James L. Cates Jr., a lifelong resident of Chapel Hill’s historically black Northside neighborhood, would’ve turned 70 this weekend. But at 22, he was stabbed and left to die at the heart of @UNC’s campus in 1970.
This will be a (long) thread about the circumstances surrounding James Cates’s death, and the role of UNC and police.
The full story of James’s murder has never been told. That it happened at all had largely been forgotten, whitewashed from Chapel Hill memory and history.
The recent night that UNC’s Confederate monument Silent Sam fell, demonstrator Maya Little evoked James’s murder in a speech. Little again mentioned James in court last week, and a memorial was held on campus yesterday.
This thread’s timing is coincidental to that. I’ve been researching this case and the surrounding history for 2+ years. I’m unsure where that work is going, but now, on James’s 70th, is the right time to put out some findings.
James’s death was a Black Lives Matter event 40 years before that movement had a name. And as this 1971 photo from its first anniversary shows, Silent Sam was the obvious symbol at which to direct grief and anger.…
As the deadline looms for a proposal on what to do with Silent Sam, I hope @UNC @ChancellorFolt @UNC_System will consider the following. This thread will also conclude with an important, non-Silent Sam proposal.
The following information is drawn from extensive research of many contemporary newspapers; archival, court, land, probate, and vital records; readings of scholarly research and books; my own interviews and conversations; and oral histories...
The weekend before Thanksgiving 1970, James Cates Jr. was killed during a large fight outside a dance at the Student Union. It was an all-night dance marathon meant to foster improved race relations.
The fight was between members of a Nazi-themed motorcycle gang called the Storm Troopers, well known in the area, and black dance attendees, many from Northside. Several of James’s friends and relatives are still around.
(I apologize for the graphic photo but it is important to the story. And will come up again later.)
First, a little background on James, since nothing about his life was ever printed in the news coverage, not even a photo. He was just a name, an age, and a race ... James Lewis Cates, 22 ... and his name might’ve been incorrect.
While his middle name was reported as Lewis -- as it was on his death and birth certificates -- it was spelled Louis on his grave. Inconsistencies on vital documents were long common for African Americans.
For that same reason, I said at the start that James would’ve turned 70 “this weekend.” His death & birth certificates and grave disagree on his DOB: Oct. 26, 27, or 28. According to his grave, Sunday would be his birthday.
But contemporary reporters never wrote the first thing about who James was, even missing out on the important fact that his grandmother, whom he lived with at the time of his death, had worked for UNC while raising him.
James’s father, James Sr., known in Northside as “Boot,” served in the Air Force for 22 years before retiring. Stationed around the world, he reached the rank of sergeant. From his military records:
James Jr.’s paternal grandmother, Annie Cates, raised him from a baby in her Graham Street house in neglected Northside. Chapel Hill’s black neighborhoods were long lacking in basic services, from sewer to paved roads.
Born as Annie Fearrington/Farrington in the early 1900s, James’s grandmother grew up on a nearby tobacco farm with an abusive father who was likely born enslaved, 2 months before the Civil War began.
When she was old enough, Annie left the backbreaking work of the farm, where her brothers didn’t treat her much better after their father’s death, to make a life for herself a few miles north in Chapel Hill.
At the time of her grandson's murder, a perception existed that it was an event involving outsiders ... neither the Storm Troopers nor James were UNC students ... they weren’t part of the UNC community.
But only 2% of UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates then were black. Any campus event aiming for a diverse crowd would’ve had to rely on non-students.
Three years earlier when African-American enrollment was even lower, UNC’s chancellor, Carlyle Sitterson, had said: “Any increase in the number of Negroes will have to come slowly.”
Practically speaking, UNC’s classroom doors were still closed to folks from Northside. But they and their ancestors had long performed the enslaved and then underpaid labor that fueled the campus.
That included Annie Cates, who for many years worked at the University Laundry. Here she is in the 1967 town directory, listed as an ironer, a job she’d had for at least a decade by then, perhaps much longer.
The Laundry was cleaning 2.5 million lbs of soiled linens per year. In 1970, when James died, nearly all women in similar jobs to Annie Cates made $3,660-$4,152 annually, not bumped above that despite years of service and the pay schedule often dictating they should’ve been.
In 1967-68, the Laundry was still a Jim Crow workplace, from restrooms and break areas to segregation by job types. Laundry management installed new bathroom signs and posted notices, and made a token effort to integrate departments and widen opportunity for black workers.
Annie's grandson, James Jr., was a Baby Boomer, born in 1948. He was a small boy and a small young man, roughly five-and-a-half feet tall, maybe 150 pounds. Friends and family called him “Baby Boy.” Still do.
James was popular among Northside youth. A lifelong friend described him to me as their Fonz. He was a “cool cat,” a smooth talker, well dressed, someone you’d consult for advice, and known as a ladies’ man.
As an adolescent in the early 1960s, James marched during Chapel Hill’s civil rights movement, which over four years couldn’t get the town to rid itself of Whites Only businesses. UNC took steps to discourage protestors. (James Cates not pictured)
James attended Lincoln High, Chapel Hill’s black school, until his senior year, 1966-67, when he moved to Chapel Hill High. It was the first year Chapel Hill’s public schools were fully integrated. At Lincoln, he’d participated in the school newspaper and student government.
When James was killed in 1970, there was no shortage of splashy media attention, including national coverage by the New York Times, AP, and UPI. Several newspapers closely covered developments through the trial.
The details of the brawl will always be somewhat murky. But three things were clear about how James was injured: He was wounded in two places and bled to death; one or more of the Storm Troopers wounded him; self-defense was not argued.
It’s also clear that the most historically significant (and overlooked) facts about James’s murder actually occurred beginning the moment he fell to the bricks, including the ongoing cultural erasure of his murder.
The Union dance started at midnight on a Friday night. At some point, the Storm Troopers arrived. People were heated over an altercation the bikers had gotten into earlier with some black men at a downtown eatery.
In the neighborhood of 2:03/2:04 a.m., the big fight began outside the Union when four black men evidently assaulted one of the Storm Troopers. His face was cut and bleeding from the exchange. The four black men took off.
Incensed, the biker commenced yelling threats, saying he was going to “kill some n------,” including saying so to police officers asking the Storm Troopers to leave.
Amid the inflammatory threats, a scattered fight broke out between black dance goers and the bikers outside the Union and around the Pit –- a sunken, brick patio between the Union, bookstore, dining hall, and library.
Four or five Storm Troopers and anywhere from 10 to dozens of black youths were involved. Several people were injured, including students. The fight ended just after James fell to the ground bleeding. Police called for an ambulance at 2:11 a.m.
James had a long, deep gash across his belly. Less obvious in the dark was that he’d also been stabbed in the groin area. The puncture wound was 6 centimeters deep and his femoral artery was sliced open.
One UNC police officer was there from the start. Another arrived just after the initial scuffle; several more came during and immediately after the fight. Ten total officers, including Chapel Hill PD, were eventually on hand.
By policy then, once Chapel PD arrived, they were in charge. The police did not arrest anyone after James was stabbed. They let the Storm Troopers leave, even telling them to, which made securing convictions in court difficult. Their attorneys used an identity defense.
When James fell to the bricks between the Union and the Pit, he was unresponsive and bleeding profusely. An ex-Army medic then working as an orderly was attending the dance in work clothes and came to James’s aid.
According to reports, the police officers at the scene did little to nothing to tend to James aside from calling for an ambulance.
Ambulance services were far from what they are today. The company that contracted with Chapel Hill out of Durham did not have a local ambulance available, so it tried to get a funeral home to go.
The ex-Army medic stuffed napkins from the Union snack bar into James’s sliced gut. He told me it looked “like somebody had committed hara-kiri.” With the excessive blood, chaos, and dark, he said he did not see the groin wound.
As blood pooled, officers reportedly seemed unconcerned, standing to the side as James’s life was in obvious danger, which the ex-medic communicated. The hospital was 1/3 of a mile away as the crow flies, about a mile by car.
Black locals at the scene implored police to take James to the hospital, even trying to take him themselves, but officers stopped them. Police later explained that they were generally advised not to move injured persons.
A white undergraduate at the dance sent this letter to two local papers. Reports of how long James bled before police relented and took him to the hospital ranged from 14 to 45 minutes or more.
Another young black man stabbed during the fight ran to the hospital. He lived.
It is possible James was there for as long as 45 minutes, but it’s hard to know. It would’ve been a supremely cruel length of time to wait. But it’s unlikely police exited with James in a car at 2:25 a.m., 14 minutes after calling an ambulance, which became UNC’s position.
Eventually a police car was driven up to James and he was loaded into the backseat and taken to the ER. James arrived at the hospital alive but died shortly thereafter due to excessive blood loss from the groin wound.
The ER doctor in charge told me that by the time James arrived, he had so little blood in him they could not get an IV into his veins. The medical examiner testified under oath “the body was almost devoid of blood.”
The ER doctor testified that James could’ve lived if he’d gotten to the hospital sooner. As it was, James flatlined. CPR failed. And according to his death certificate, James died at 3:30 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 21, 1970.
The ex-Army medic, who was white and whose name was never published, remains traumatized by that night to this day. For many years, he unfairly blamed himself for James’s death for, he says, not spotting the groin wound in the dark, chaotic scene.
What also wasn’t in the papers was that black witnesses, neighbors, and relatives were so upset about police disregard for James’s life, they went to UNC system president Bill Friday’s house Sunday evening.
The men asked for an investigation by UNC into the campus police’s conduct. Friday called a meeting for 8:30 a.m. Monday with the chancellor, the vice chancellor over the police, and the assistant to the chancellor.
Chancellor Sitterson instructed his administrators to meet with the concerned black men and then work to reconstruct the events of the night James died.
The result was a memo/report of 5+ pages that for multiple reasons looked as much like a coverup as a good-faith effort to find the truth. A coverup at UNC’s highest levels, of white violence against a black man, had precedents.
President Kemp Plummer Battle had worked diligently to coverup extreme abuse of convicts on a chain gang building UNC a railroad spur after one was whipped to death in 1880. Julian Carr aided Battle’s effort.
In 1886 a group of armed students marched into the black community following an argument after a whipping. A student was killed, UNC paid to prosecute the black men, and Battle advised a student to withdraw to avoid prosecution for the whipping.
With James Cates in 1970, UNC administrators immediately interviewed a group of 10 concerned black men after their visit to President Friday’s house the previous evening.
The UNC-Chapel Hill brass were tasked with determining “insofar as possible the facts and the sequence of events.” Their methods left much to be desired.
For starters, the 10 black men were interviewed as a group, their account summarized as a single version of events that amounted to 5 sentences in a report that relied almost entirely on verbal and written police accounts.
And only one sentence of those five came close to addressing the men’s complaints about the police’s conduct that night: They stated that James arrived to the hospital about 3:15 a.m., an hour after he was wounded. (Names redacted here for privacy.)
Supplemental documents contained more detail from interviews than did the final report. But the black men’s account was exactly as brief, 148 words. Meanwhile summaries of individual officer accounts went as long as 5+ pages.
Those supplemental docs summarizing administrators’ interviews of campus officers touched very little on the time of the ambulance’s arrival. The administrators also first told the officers, who might've feared for their jobs, that their main concern was the time that elapsed.
UNC-Chapel Hill handled the interviews of police and others, as well as the creation of the report. However, the summation of the black group’s account from their meeting was dictated by a UNC system vice president, Ferebee Taylor.
The month before, Taylor’s archived papers show, he’d traveled to northern Virginia to honor the 100th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s death at Lee’s birthplace. Taylor was so moved by the memorial address, “He Stands Alone,” ...
He asked the speaker for a copy. The speaker, a UNC trustee, sent Taylor the 16-page speech he’d written. In 1972, Taylor became UNC-Chapel Hill’s next chancellor.
UNC took as fact that James exited the Union in a car at 2:25 a.m., and arrived at the ER at 2:30, 45 minutes earlier than the group of black men had asserted.
The ambulance company’s contract with Chapel Hill was up for renewal, an incentive to possibly lie. It soon lost the contract, and the South Orange (County) Rescue Squad was founded as a result of James’s death.
Further, a relative of James’s who was present provided information in grand jury testimony and in a later interview that seemed to sink the 14-minute story adopted by UNC.
In court, he stated that he tried to pick up James to take him to the hospital himself twice but was stopped by police. Then in an interview years later, he recalled another damning detail.
He said he’d borrowed a car, drove to James’s mother’s home, told her that James had been stabbed, got back in the car, drove to Annie Cates’s house, told her, and then drove back to campus to find James still on the ground.
I drove a 3.5-mile, slightly shorter version of the route five times with almost no traffic on the road. The average time it took was 12 minutes, 35 seconds (shortest 11:09, longest 14:08).
That was without getting in and out of the car twice to wake up two households with news their son/grandson was gravely injured. Factor in two thwarted attempts to collect James himself, getting to and from the car at the Union...
Plus, factor in time it took to get a police car through a crowd to outside the Union, carry an unconscious man into the backseat, and exit to the street, when the ambulance was supposedly arriving at 2:25 a.m. ...
The official line of 14 minutes doesn’t add up. And according to the report, the police began loading James into the car at about 2:20, within 10 minutes, exiting after 14 total.
It also seems unlikely that if police had moved to get James into a car within 10 minutes, that witnesses would’ve confused that with as long as 45 minutes or even more...
Or that witnesses would’ve been so outraged as to go to Bill Friday’s house. The U.S. Department of Justice was even asked to investigate, although I could find no record that its Civil Rights Division or FBI did so.
Further inconsistencies with the official story existed. James’s death certificate said he died at 3:30 a.m., that doctors worked on him for an hour, and that the time between injury and death was also about an hour.
Also in supplemental documents, while some hospital staff said James arrived about 2:30, the hospital’s assistant director said he got a call to go to the hospital at 2:30, yet he got there in time to see James arrive. That was not in the final report.
Other problems with the report included the fact that it completely omitted the racial slurs and threats by the Storm Troopers, portraying the bikers as cooperative bystanders in the events.
By contrast, the report described actions of black men in an almost animalistic manner. One claim was that the ex-medic, in a white orderly’s uniform, was “jumped by a black” while helping James. The ex-medic does not recall that.
Despite the report portraying police conduct as proper, records reveal that as a result of that night, UNC officers were made to complete various forms of training: first aid, firearm, crowd/riot control, and more basic training.
Memos and correspondence spanning decades make clear that administrators had low opinions of UNC’s police officers and bosses. Complaints of employee discrimination in the department later led to a lengthy lawsuit.
The mistakes that night did not stop there. Another egregious misstep occurred in the early hours of Nov. 21, 1970, that went unnoticed at the time but also spoke to how little James’s life mattered on campus.
As James died at the hospital, university employees (the Union director and the head of security) were already cleaning the crime scene, a practice that even for the time was suspect.
Arthur Beaumont, buildings security chief and part of the UNC police apparatus, had been police chief but was moved from that role due to erratic and unprofessional behavior. Howard Henry had been the Union director for 12 years.
That a home football game vs Duke was to be played on campus the next afternoon could’ve been a factor. The annual “Beat Dook” parade was the afternoon before the dance, and Don McCauley broke O.J. Simpson’s single-season rushing record.
The photographer who arrived to take the photo of the crime scene being cleaned in the middle of the night told me he ran into Bill Friday and former governor/then-Duke president Terry Sanford on the way to the next day’s game.
They walked to the stadium together asking the photographer what he knew. Friday and Sanford fixated on the idea of outsiders. “They were incredulous that somebody would throw an all-night party and let non-students come,” the photographer remembered.
One campus police officer told administrators in his interview that “when you get a large group of blacks together you are likely to have a fight.”
So as a result of police decisions that night: No arrests were made at the scene, no murder weapon or blood evidence from the Storm Troopers’ clothes or bodies was obtained, and the crime scene wasn’t investigated.
UNC police then quickly turned over the investigation to Chapel Hill PD.
By contrast, five years earlier, in 1965, there had been another murder on UNC’s campus, in the Arboretum. This one was of a white female summer school student, and the assailant was thought to have been a black male.
A multi-state manhunt ensued. Dozens of black men were interrogated. The SBI was brought in. News coverage was breathless and years long, and the victim’s life was written about in great detail.
When a murder weapon couldn’t be found, Chapel Hill police even invited hundreds of UNC students to comb the Arboretum. (Photos from UNC Archives. News clips from a book that was compiled for Wilson Library a few years ago.)
Often I’ve mentioned James’s murder to white locals who knew nothing of it but who replied by asking me if I’d heard of the Arboretum murder. It is well remembered and documented.
I once surveyed 50 people at a public social event at the Carolina Inn, asking if they’d heard of James’s murder: 4 said yes (3 of whom had because they’d been UNC students in 1970).
Three members of the Storm Troopers were arrested for James’s murder later that weekend in November 1970. I won’t go into the details of the legal proceedings here, because this is all way too long for Twitter as is.
Suffice it to say, the court case was a travesty too. The prosecution was perfunctory, the investigation lackluster and with costly missteps.
At the conclusion of the trial, the Chapel Hill Weekly called the solicitor (the term for district attorney then) “to put it charitably, ill-prepared,” in regard to his performance at the trial.
The young solicitor would continue to have a checkered history, including suspect conduct when race was a factor in cases, and earned a reputation as an uninspired and ineffective prosecutor.
Including a 4-hour jury selection, closing arguments by 7 attorneys, and jury deliberation, the Cates murder trial lasted 3 and a half days. The prosecution called 5 of about 50 civilian eye witnesses sequestered at the courthouse.
The defense called no witnesses. An all-white Orange County jury deliberated for 85 minutes. When the jurors re-entered the courtroom, the judge instructed the gallery that no one was to enter or leave.
But a woman, likely Annie Cates, got up and tried to exit, apparently too upset to hear the verdict. Bailiffs stopped her, but the judge told the sheriff’s deputies to let her go. The three Storm Troopers were found not guilty.
The day of James’s funeral, the day before Thanksgiving, mourners had marched from Northside through town. The night after the verdict, in late March of 1971, it snowed, and two Chapel Hill buildings were firebombed.
Hundreds marched again from Northside. A couple of weeks later, more firebombings occurred. The response by police and courts was much more vigorous than for James’s murder. The same went for editorials and letters to the editor in the town newspaper.
Fifteen young black men, as young as 16, were arrested for the firebombings. Bonds were initially set for $60,000 (15 years of pre-tax salary for a University Laundry worker). Bond for the Storm Troopers had been $10,000.
Annie Cates wrote a letter to the Chapel Hill Weekly too.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the whole story, but this isn’t the venue. I don’t know where my research is going, but I feel that now is the time to put out some of it.
For one, I hope that @UNC @ChancellorFolt and @UNC_System take these facts into account as they decide what to do with the white supremacist monument called Silent Sam.
Most crucially though, I hope that @UNC, in light of @ChancellorFolt apologizing for UNC’s role in slavery and saying the apology must be followed by action, takes action. The value prescribed by UNC and Chapel Hill to James's life was not an anomaly.
I propose that @UNC create and finance a scholarship fund, perhaps in James’s name, to cover tuition and fees for a dozen African-American students from Orange County’s historically black neighborhoods, the residents of which UNC exploited as a resource for 200 years.
For too long, the iconic stone walls that enslaved people built at UNC signified where young black men and women could not go, except to labor. Descendants still living with that legacy reside in close proximity. A great debt is owed.
The one thing UNC can offer is an open door to education. It can signal that the residents of Northside and other neighborhoods are outsiders no more. That the “University of the People” will stop defaulting on its promissory note. /END
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