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UNC Chapel Hill to memorialize Black man killed on campus in 1970 in an act of racial violence

James Cates was stabbed to death on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1970 in an act of racial violence.
Town of Chapel Hill
James Cates was stabbed to death on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1970 in an act of racial violence.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has announced it will create a permanent memorial to James Cates Jr. The 22-year-old Black man was killed on campus in 1970 in an act of racial violence.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz delivered the news of the Cates tribute to the campus community in an email Friday. The school will install the memorial in the Pit outside the student union, where he was stabbed to death.

Guskiewicz said he was pleased to announce the memorial before the start of the fall semester, and said the memorial will be installed later this year.

Historic newspaper articles uncovered by local journalist Mike Ogle show Cates was involved in a large fight between a Nazi-themed motorcycle gang called the Storm Troopers and Black attendees of a dance marathon. Student organizations were hosting the all-night dance party to improve race relations. Cates was one of many young people from Chapel Hill's Northside neighborhood who attended the event.

A newspaper report by a witness says police who responded to the fight left Cates to bleed to death on the brick pavement.

Three white men, Ronnie Broadwell, Rufus Paul Nelson and William Johnson were arrested and tried for Cates' murder. The defense attorneys provided no witnesses and the trial consisted of testimony by the state's witnesses. An all-white jury in Orange County acquitted the three men in 1971 following less than 2 hours of deliberation, historical reports show.

Cates was raised in Chapel Hill by his grandmother Annie Cates, who worked for the university laundry services.

Last summer, the university's Black Student Movement called for a memorial in protests following the tenure controversy with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

In his announcement, Guskiewicz said the memorial was developed with input from community members and students. He thanked the university's Board of Trustees for approving the memorial.

“The Board was committed to listening to members of our Carolina community, including alumni, faculty and students, during this process. This memorial honors James Cates and what his life meant to the University and Chapel Hill, and hopefully this will help bring our campus and community together,” said UNC Chapel Hill's Board Chair David Boliek.

In March, the U.S. Department of Justice re-opened Cates' case under the department's Cold Case Initiative which identifies and investigates racially-motivated murders.

WUNC's Laura Pellicer contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.