Meet The UNC-CH Black Pioneers Fighting The Silent Sam Settlement

Feb 12, 2020

Otto White, Jr., Dr. Joanne Wilson, and Algin Holloway [left to right] are among the 88 UNC-CH alumni who signed their names to a legal brief seeking to overturn the UNC System's settlement.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

The legal battle over the UNC System’s $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans heads back to court Wednesday.

District Court Judge Allen Baddour has heard arguments from attorneys for the UNC system, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, students and faculty. Baddour decided to reopen the case and consider arguments from interested parties who disagree about whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans had standing to sue the UNC System. At a second hearing, a group of UNC-Chapel Hill alumni will make its voice known.

Fourteen members of the UNC Black Pioneers, a group of the earliest African-American graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill, have joined 74 other alumni in opposing the settlement that gave the Sons of Confederate Veterans possession of the Silent Sam statue and funds for its caretaking. The alumni say the settlement was a misuse of public funds and contradicts the University's mission.

WUNC reporter Liz Schlemmer interviewed four of the UNC Black Pioneers who signed their names to a brief arguing for the settlement to be thrown out. 

Otto White Jr. is a retired scientist living in Chapel Hill. He is a graduate of the Class of 1965. As a student, he was active in civil rights demonstrations against segregation in downtown Chapel Hill businesses.

Dr. Joanne Wilson is a Professor of Gastroenterology at Duke University and lives in Chapel Hill. She is a graduate of the Class of 1969, one of the first classes that entered women as freshmen.

Algin Holloway is a retired educator living in Durham. He is a graduate of the Class of 1968.

Mel Watt is a former congressman who represented the 12th District of North Carolina for 21 years. He is a graduate of the Class of 1967.

Otto White, Dr. Joanne Wilson and Algin Holloway in the WUNC studio.
Credit Jenni Lawson

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What motivated you to sign on to the amicus brief?

Congressman Mel Watt: When I heard about this settlement that had been reached, I was offended that the university would first even give the statue to a white supremacist organization. And second that they would use well over a million dollars to maintain the statue. Both of those things were very offensive to me.

Otto White: I was so appalled. I felt that I had been somewhat deceived because at one of the black reunion affairs, I saw a film that showed the progress that the university had made with diversity. And it ended with: “We are trying to be the University of the People.” And that agreement was not in concert with that idea.

Dr. Joanne Wilson: I heard about it through the news around Thanksgiving when it was announced just as all of the students were leaving the campus, and so that it was undertaken in a clandestine fashion was incredible.  $2.5 million dollars is a huge sum of money.

Algin Holloway: These are real people that were affected by this and it comes down to us. It cut deeply. I was angry about it, and then to move from that to this was at the urging of my classmates and the pioneers who got the ball rolling.

What responsibility did you feel as alumni, or as UNC Black Pioneers, to speak up on this issue and take legal action?

Dr. Joanne Wilson: When you look at the signatories on that brief, you will find people from all over the country, and they're not just African-American alums; it’s a broad group.

I think that if we had had a way of notifying even more people, we would have had hundreds of people, because I've had other people ask me, “Well, how did you get on there and I didn’t? Because I have those same strong ties to the university and the same feeling that this should not be.”

Many of us are donors, members of the General Alumni Association, on boards at the university, all giving our time to support a university that we love and feel has given to us that we are willing to give back. And we as alumni, and the people of North Carolina deserve better.

Congressman Mel Watt: We, as graduates of the University of North Carolina, really have more standing to be aggressively pushing for fairness and justice and equality at the university than anybody does.

Algin Holloway: I think that every person of color, who's going to University of North Carolina, owes it to himself and to the people who are coming after him to open up the way for those who come behind.

Otto White: We have a responsibility as individuals, as African Americans, to make sure that the University of North Carolina becomes the University of the People. There's a lot of struggle still going on.