Con­fed­er­acy protest

Howard stu­dents wore nooses in a 1930s demon­stra­tion. Now, these Univer­sity of North Carolina stu­dents do, too.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY SU­SAN SVR­LUGA

It was 1934. Howard Univer­sity stu­dents spoke out against lynch­ing by loop­ing nooses around their necks.

More than eight decades later, that wrench­ing act served as pro­logue for an­other protest when two stu­dents at the Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill fas­tened nooses around their necks amid de­mon­stra­tions against a Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment on their cam­pus.

In volatile, po­lar­ized times, the coun­try is con­fronting lynch­ing: Last spring, the Na­tional Me­mo­rial for Peace and Jus­tice, with its sear­ing look at the deadly vi­o­lence of white supremacy, opened in Alabama. And in De­cem­ber, the Se­nate unan­i­mously passed a bill that would make lynch­ing a fed­eral hate crime — nearly a cen­tury after the first ef­forts to do so.

Jerry J. Wil­son, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at UNC, wanted a way to jolt peo­ple into un­der­stand­ing how black peo­ple on cam­pus feel about the statue known as “Silent Sam.” While some re­vere the mon­u­ment hon­or­ing stu­dents who fought for the Con­fed­er­acy, oth­ers see a bla­tant sym­bol of racist vi­o­lence erected a cen­tury ago with a ded­i­ca­tion speech that gloat­ingly re­ferred to horse­whip­ping a black woman. Pro­test­ers pulled it down in Au­gust, and school of­fi­cials are de­bat­ing whether, and how, to re­turn it to the pub­lic univer­sity’s cam­pus.

Know­ing that a noose had been found hang­ing on nearby Duke Univer­sity’s cam­pus in a re­cent year, Wil­son won­dered what would hap­pen if a stu­dent hung a noose at UNC. “How could the univer­sity pun­ish that

stu­dent if [the univer­sity is] pro­tect­ing this mon­u­ment to white supremacy?” asked Wil­son, who is pur­su­ing a doc­tor­ate in ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, lead­er­ship and school im­prove­ment.

He went to Home De­pot, bought white ny­lon rope, looped a six-foot length of it and sealed the ends with Carolina-blue tape.

Re­cent pho­tos of the UNC stu­dents wear­ing nooses caught the at­ten­tion of schol­ars at Howard Univer­sity’s Moor­landSpin­garn Re­search Cen­ter.

In 1934, Howard stu­dents joined a protest, led by the NAACP, of the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Con­fer­ence on Crime, an event held over sev­eral De­cem­ber days that year to dis­cuss the most press­ing crim­i­nal-jus­tice is­sues fac­ing the coun­try.

“They had de­cided they were not go­ing to dis­cuss lynch­ing at all,” said Lopez Matthews Jr., who earned his doc­tor­ate at Howard and works at the univer­sity li­braries and the re­search cen­ter. So, peo­ple stood silently out­side the Me­mo­rial Con­ti­nen­tal Hall in Wash­ing­ton with ropes looped around their necks.

Fight­ing lynch­ing was a ma­jor is­sue through the 1960s, Matthews said, de­spite the re­peated fail­ure to pass fed­eral leg­is­la­tion.

The Howard stu­dents caught on film in 1934 were among thou­sands of pro­test­ers on the cam­pus through­out its his­tory. Stu­dents were en­cour­aged by ac­tivists to protest in the 1920s, Matthews said. They ob­jected when African Amer­i­can singer Mar­ian An­der­son was not al­lowed to per­form at DAR Con­sti­tu­tion Hall in 1939, and they par­tic­i­pated in sit-ins from the 1930s on.

Stu­dents took over the univer­sity’s ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing in 1968. “They didn’t feel the cur­ricu­lum was black enough,” Mat- thews said, and they helped push through changes such as cre­ation of an Afro-Amer­i­can Stud­ies Depart­ment. In 1989, hun­dreds of stu­dent pro­test­ers forced the res­ig­na­tion of a prom­i­nent white Repub­li­can leader from the school’s board of trustees. Last spring, pro­test­ers again took over the ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing for days, de­mand­ing change.

This school year, Matthews said, stu­dents and oth­ers at Howard have closely watched events in Chapel Hill.

Wil­liam Sturkey, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­tory at UNC, wrote in an email that the noose protest is pow­er­ful be­cause it dis­rupts the san­i­tized com­mem­o­ra­tive cam­pus land­scape “that honors in­di­vid­u­als who ad­vo­cated and com­mit­ted very real acts of vi­o­lence against black peo­ple.”

When Wil­son was first con­sid­er­ing wear­ing a noose — a de­ci­sion some friends warned might make him a tar­get of vi­o­lence — he looked for his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples. The pho­tos from Howard grounded him.

Cort­land Gil­liam, an­other grad­u­ate stu­dent par­tic­i­pat­ing in the protest, vis­ited the me­mo­rial and mu­seum in Alabama with other stu­dents in the fall. The ex­hibits un­der­score the breadth of lynch­ing in the past and the trou­bling rel­e­vance of the noose as a sym­bol to­day.

The noose is phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally weighty, Gil­liam said. He found it dif­fi­cult to shoul­der; he’s usu­ally re­served, non­con­fronta­tional. But he felt it was im­por­tant to speak out, an idea that was re­in­forced and af­firmed by the images of peo­ple from Howard us­ing rope to shout with­out words.

“There’s a his­toric bur­den that as Amer­i­cans we all share,” he said, “but only some of us are forced to carry.”


TOP: Jerry J. Wil­son, left, and fel­low Univer­sity of North Carolina doc­toral stu­dent Cort­land Gil­liam were in­spired by past pro­test­ers from Howard Univer­sity who wore nooses. ABOVE: Howard stu­dents picket the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Con­fer­ence on Crime in 1934 over its re­fusal to dis­cuss lynch­ing.

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