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: In the 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-Chapel Hill, 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 campus.
Knowing that a noose had been found hanging on nearby Duke University’s campus in recent years, 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 some white nylon rope, looped a six-foot length of it and sealed the ends with Carolina-blue tape.
Photos of students wearing nooses caught the attention of scholars at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn 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 Howard University Libraries and Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. So, people stood silently outside the Memorial Continental Hall in Washington with ropes looped around their necks.
Fighting against 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 over its history. Students were encouraged by activists to protest in the 1920s, Matthews said. They objected when singer Marian Anderson, who was black, was not allowed to perform at Constitution Hall, and 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,” Matthews 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. In the 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-Chapel Hill, 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 him 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 underscored 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.”