25 years before the protests over Silent Sam, UNC athletes united over another cause

More than 25 years ago, in the fall of 1992, four football players at UNC-Chapel Hill began a movement that has recently awakened. They fought then, through actions and words, for the construction of a free-standing black cultural center on campus.

In the process, they laid a foundation for athlete-driven activism, one on which hundreds now stand in protest of Silent Sam.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the similar issues still exist,” John Bradley, one of the UNC football players who led sit-ins and marches in the early-90s, said during a recent phone interview. “And actually Silent Sam was part of some of the things that we wanted the university to address. But it just took a little bit smaller of a spotlight at the time.”

A quarter of a century later, hundreds of UNC athletes have no longer found it acceptable to remain silent. They have attached their names to a cause that, in some ways, began when Bradley and three teammates created what they called the “Black Awareness Council.” Back then, Bradley said he and his teammates often spoke of Silent Sam, and what it meant to them, but were unsure how to proceed.

Now, UNC athletes past and present have made it clear: They don’t want it on campus.

“It was time to take a stand,” Sterling Manley, a sophomore on the UNC basketball team, said on Saturday, explaining why he joined a long list of the university’s athletes who have made clear their position on Silent Sam, the fallen Confederate Monument whose future is yet to be decided.

December 2018: The letter

Last Friday, Manley became the 246th UNC athlete to add his name to an open letter entitled, “Current and former University of North Carolina Student-Athletes Against Silent Sam.” Ezra Baeli-Wang, a 2017 UNC graduate who spent four years on the fencing team, wrote the letter last Tuesday. Nearly 300 athletes have added their names to it.

“As athletes,” Baeli-Wang wrote near the beginning of the 260-word letter, “we recognize division as our worst enemy. In athletics, and in life, success requires unity. Now, more than ever, we are unwilling to tolerate – let alone celebrate – symbols of division.”

To Baeli-Wang and the nearly 300 current and former UNC athletes who have signed his letter, the symbol of division is not only Silent Sam. It is also the university’s ill-fated proposal to build an on-campus museum to house the statue – a $5.3 million proposal, with an annual cost of $800,000, that the UNC Board of Governors rejected last week.

For now, Silent Sam remains homeless. It has remained in an undisclosed location – the university won’t say where – since protesters tore the statue from its granite pedestal on Aug. 20. The toppling followed more than a year of fierce, publicized protests, though for decades the statue’s presence had been controversial.

Silent Sam was erected in 1913, after years of planning between the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the UNC administration. A prominent Boston sculptor, John Wilson, designed it. The statue, bronze and about eight feet tall, depicts a young soldier facing north, toward the enemy, leaving his schoolbooks behind.

He is carrying a rifle and the canteen that hangs at his side bears the letters “C.S.A.” – Confederate States of America. For 105 years the statue stood in the center of the oldest part of the UNC campus, clearly visible from Franklin St., the Chapel Hill version of Main Street, USA. To some, the statue’s presence always created division.

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The broader conversation surrounding it, though, changed in 2011, when a UNC graduate student named Adam Domby discovered a speech that had been lost to history. The speech was from Julian Carr, a Confederate veteran who left UNC to fight in the Civil War.

He gave the speech at Silent Sam’s dedication, where the university community gathered to celebrate a monument that rose to honor the memory of men like Carr – those who’d left campus to fight for the Confederacy. During his speech, Carr, by then an aging man, recalled when he “horse-whipped a negro wench” about 100 yards from where the statue now stood. He carried out the act, he said, upon his return from Appomattox. He described the beating as “a pleasing duty.”

When he sat down to write his own words, Baeli-Wang thought about the ones that Carr spoke 105 years ago. To Baeli-Wang those words invalidated the argument in favor of keeping Silent Sam on campus – the argument that the statue represented history and a kind of nobility, in its own way.

“He brags about whipping a woman of color just hundreds of feet from where that statue stood,” Baeli-Wang said. “And I think that erases any credibility of the argument that, oh, it’s just kind of like a historical thing.

“When the individual who dedicated that statue bragged about such a hideous, atrocious act, that really exemplifies the racial violence of the slavery period. I just think that it’s impossible to divorce those things. And so to have a statue with that specific history on a campus of higher learning with a diverse population is just – it’s disrespectful. It’s insulting and it’s not tolerable.”

September 1992: The cultural center

Twenty-five years ago, neither Bradley nor anyone else knew about Carr’s speech, which didn’t emerge for another two decades. Even without that knowledge, though, Bradley understood enough about Silent Sam to be uncomfortable when he walked past it.

“Living on south campus for the first three years, and you’d walk to Franklin Street, that was just one of the landmarks that you always walked by,” Bradley said. “Being a minority on campus, it just wasn’t a positive experience. It wasn’t something you could identify with and say, oh, this part of my campus, I love. Like when you think about the Old Well, it’s a uniting thing. …

“Most of the things on campus, there’s a shared joy and respect. … But Silent Sam was just something that was in your face, you know, all the time. And even when I was there, there were several smaller protests, and little kind of educational speak outs that took place in front of Silent Sam, but nowhere near the amount of attention that it has received lately.”

Throughout the late 1980s and early-90s, the central debate at UNC focused on the potential construction of a stand-alone black cultural center, which UNC’s African-American community had long wanted. For years the university’s administration had been promising to build one. And, for years, the plan to make it a reality had gone nowhere.

By 1992, not long after the death of Sonja Haynes Stone, a popular African Studies professor, those pleading for the black cultural center had long grown tired of waiting. That summer, Bradley and fellow UNC football players Jimmy Hitchcock, Malcolm Marshall and Tim Smith created the “Black Awareness Council,” an organization devoted to raising awareness among black students. The BAC joined a fight that had made several demands of Paul Hardin, the UNC chancellor at the time.

Among those demands: the immediate construction of a black cultural center, named after Sonja Haynes Stone; improved pay and working conditions for the university’s housekeeping staff; and the expansion of the African Studies curriculum to full departmental status.

The call for the black cultural center, in particular, moved to the top of the agenda among Bradley, his teammates and other student activists. In September of 1992, the movement grew beyond words. Bradley and others began taking action. On that Sept. 10, Bradley and his teammates helped lead hundreds of students to a sit-in at the South Building, UNC’s administrative headquarters.

The protesters “waved from the windows … and chanted ‘black power,’” according to an account in The News & Observer the next day. They approached Hardin, the chancellor, in his office, and demanded that the university make progress on the plans to build the black cultural center. According to The N&O, the number of protesters was estimated to be between 600 and 1,500.

“We’re not going to play around,” Tim Smith, another football player, told The N&O at the time.

Soon, the movement became national news. Spike Lee visited campus the week after the occupation of the South Building, and praised the stand the athletes were making.

“When I see these brothers jeopardize their draft, they have backbone,” Lee said, according to an N&O story from Sept. 19, 1992, “while most (athletes) have jellyfish spines.”

The New York Times wrote about the athlete-led sit-in on Sept. 11, 1992, with the headline, “At Chapel Hill, Athletes Suddenly Become Activists.” About 15 years before social media began to rise to prominence, the debate surrounding the black cultural center played out on campus and in the daily pages of newspapers and on their editorial pages.

In September 1992 an N&O editorial ran with the headline, “Cultural Center, Or a Wall?” The newspaper’s editorial board wrote that a stand-alone black cultural center would be “bad symbolism.” The editorial closed with this:

“To build such a center would not be a victory for black students or anyone else. It would be a defeat for all those who have battled racial separatism as demoralizing not just to one race, but to all humanity.”

Bradley, meanwhile, received more strongly-worded feedback. Some of it included racial slurs, he said.

“I can imagine it would probably be worse now,” he said, “but I had mail sent directly to my home in Wilmington, just basically saying that, you know, you’re on scholarship, you need to focus on that.”

December 2018: A movement grows

Baeli-Wang, a former co-president of UNC’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council, now lives in Washington, D.C. In his work life, he is a communications strategist for the National Association of Asian American Professionals. He is also a writer and a published poet who, in his words, believes “in the power of the written word and the spoken word.”

“I love to write,” he said.

He wasn’t exactly sure, though, how his letter would be received. When he finished it, he posted it as a Google document, accessible for anyone to read. Baeli-Wang was the first to sign it. Three other UNC fencers followed him. Then six volleyball players. And three track and field athletes. Then a golfer. And a softball player. And a member of the football team.

Last week, the number of names often grew by the hour. As of Wednesday, 289 current and former athletes had added their names. They represented 23 varsity sports. They ranged from athletes who walked onto their teams as non-scholarship players, like former basketball player Kane Ma, to those who arrived at UNC with already-high profiles, like Harrison Barnes, who was a coveted basketball prospect when he arrived at UNC in 2010.

Garrison Brooks, like Manley a sophomore basketball player at UNC, became the first member of his current team to sign the letter. The gesture was not something he took lightly. After he read what Baeli-Wang had written, Brooks said he forwarded it to his teammates. He said he wrote to them: “Guys, I think I’m going to sign this letter.”

“I wanted to know if any of you guys have problems with it,” Brooks said, reciting what he wrote to his teammates. “And they said no, and I was like, well, if you wouldn’t mind, I’m going to sign it and you’re more than welcome to sign it with me.”

Before he signed, Brooks said he educated himself about the history of the statue. He knew that it went up near the 50-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War. He knew the argument from the other side – that the statue stood to commemorate soldiers who fought and died for a cause that they believed in, a cause that they thought, at the time, to be righteous.

And yet now, 105 years later, Brooks said, “I believe it just stands for racism and putting black people down, to an extent.”

Not long after Brooks signed the letter, so did three of his teammates: Kenny Smith Jr., Brandon Robinson and Manley. In the moments after the Tar Heels’ victory against Gonzaga on Saturday night, a triumph throughout which the Smith Center crowd roared in approval of what UNC basketball players did on the court, Manley explained the significance of his choice to take a stand off of it.

Like Brooks, Manley came prepared to talk history. He knew that UNC’s’ first black undergraduate students didn’t arrive on campus until 1955. He knew that the debate over Silent Sam had been ongoing for decades.

“So this is not like something new that’s been going on since this year or last year,” Manley said. “ … This thing has been going on for years and years in the making. It’s just finally, people are kind of finally making a stand and really being aggressive with what they’re doing and trying to make a difference.”

Baeli-Wang’s letter inspired the creation of another, one from more than two dozen current and former black UNC athletes. In that letter, they wrote of a juxtaposition – that during their time as athletes they “helped to tell the story that Carolina is the ‘University of the People,’” while, now, they feel “a disconnect” from

Some of UNC’s most recognizable basketball players, including Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse, signed the letter. They described this moment as “crisis time.” Before those names at the bottom, the words at the top spoke to the challenge UNC’s current athletes face in taking a stand – the risk “in joining a public protest against this representation of white supremacy on our campus.”

October 1992: Escalation

Bradley weighed those risks, too, during his time. Back then, he said, the campus community found him and his outspoken teammates to be “a little different.”

“There’s always that perception, I think, from the outside community that as an athlete you’re given so much,” he said. “That you’re kind of spoiled. And I know some people felt that, well you know what, you’re here on scholarship, you just need to focus on sports and your schoolwork. You know – no, you shouldn’t have time to be protesting and doing things of this nature.

“But, to us, that’s all the more reason why we should be the ones doing it.”

It was an early-1990s form of “stick to sports,” a phrase that has entered popular culture, and become the subject of derision, in today’s era of politically-aware, outspoken athletes. Bradley, though, recognized that his status as a high-profile college athlete provided him a rare platform.

He sensed that people listened to him and his teammates – in part because of what they had to say but perhaps in equal measures because of who they happened to be. Smith, like Bradley a founding member of the Black Awareness Council, wrote an editorial in The N&O in October 1992.

“UNC-Chapel Hill has a building, Saunders Hall, named for an alleged Ku Klux Klan leader, but it will not allow us to honor an African-American professor who taught us to be full members of humanity,” Smith wrote, referencing Stone, the professor. Smith went on:

“We got tired of our subordination; how the university exploits athletes and others and only ‘gives’ us what ‘they’ think we ought to have, which is very little.”

The cause for which Bradley and his teammates fought continued in 1993. When UNC won the men’s basketball national championship early that April, George Lynch, one of the team’s most recognizable players, joined the fight, publicly calling on students to support the center.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited campus later that month. His visit coincided with another sit-in at the South Building, where 16 UNC students, as well as one non-student, were arrested after entering the chancellor’s office, demanding he immediately act on their demands. Bradley was there, and later led protesters on a march to the Chapel Hill police station, where he thought those arrested had been taken.

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“It has to escalate from here,” Bradley said at the time, according to an account in The N&O.

Twenty-five years later, Bradley acknowledged that he and his three teammates who formed the Black Awareness Council talked openly, among themselves, about the possibility of boycotting games in the fall of 1993. Though those conversations didn’t become serious, Bradley said, they all weighed the potential value of sitting out games.

“We obviously talked about it, us four, but it’s nothing that we would have ever placed on our teammates to do,” Bradley said recently. “Because we knew that it was our battle. And sports is a family. So the team was very supportive. The coaching staff was very supportive.

“… We never got to the point where we actually had that serious discussion, but I know all four of us were definitely willing to push the envelope some to really garner some attention to what we could do to actually make some changes on campus.”

Changes came, slowly. In July 1993, the UNC Board of Trustees approved a plan to build a standalone black cultural center. The chosen site was in Coker Woods, near Kenan Stadium and well across the street, at the time, from the main part of campus. The trustees’ decision angered people on all sides: some wanted the center built in a more prime location; others didn’t want it built at all.

Critics still protested. During UNC’s football victory against Wake Forest in October 1993, a plane flew over Kenan Stadium, a banner dragging along in the sky: “No Racism, No Separatism, No BCC,” the banner read, according to a story in The N&O, and “UNC, Stop Bending Over for the BCC.”

“It’s racist,” Bradley said after the game.

December 2018: Full circle

Bradley graduated from UNC in 1995. He now lives in Greensboro, he said, and works in Winston-Salem. He sees Marshall, another of the former football players who founded the Black Awareness Council, just about every day, Bradley said. They work as trainers. Bradley said he keeps in touch with Hitchcock and Smith, the other football players who helped bring about change at UNC.

The university began construction on the Sonja Haynes Stone Center in 2001. The building opened in 2004, 12 years after Bradley and others began waging their public fight. They’d been through years of sit-ins and marches. Some, like Bradley, came home to letters containing racial slurs. All of that and, finally, a three-story, 44,500-square foot victory. It was “pleasing,” Bradley said, seeing the end result.

“There’s a lot of access to different things that weren’t there when we were there,” he said.

There were challenges, though, that Bradley said he and his teammates couldn’t take on at the time, whether it was for lack of resources or opportunity or, perhaps, the lack of timing – that the culture, perhaps, just wasn’t ready. That was the case with Silent Sam, he said.

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Now the statue is down, and the university is trying to figure out what to do with it. UNC’s athletes haven’t occupied the South Building over Silent Sam, the way they did over the black cultural center a quarter century ago, but in some ways the athletes’ opposition to the statue now has roots in the activism that came back then.

Late last week, the word had spread to Bradley that UNC athletes were speaking out, in their own ways, in condemnation of the Confederate Monument, urging the administration not to place it back on campus. Bradley went online and found the letter. By then more than 250 athletes had added their names. Next to No. 252, he wrote in his own: John Bradley, Class of 1995, Football.

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.