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Old times there are not forgotten

Bob Garner

Bob Garner


Sunday, February 10, 2019

I was thinking recently about all the fallout from the removal of the Confederate soldier statue, “Silent Sam,” at UNC-Chapel Hill.

That, in turn, led me to remember the deafening silence of UNC’s first African American cheerleader, Jimmy Womack, during the football season of 1966 — whenever the band played “Dixie.”

Jimmy would always stand, unsmiling, with his feet spread slightly apart and his hands folded behind his back until the song ended.

I, too, was on the cheerleading squad that year. At the preseason trip to Virginia Beach during the summer, all the male cheerleaders had dutifully, if reluctantly, learned dance steps and arm motions for a routine we always did to “Dixie.”

I recall that it was the only dance we guys ever did on the sidelines, although I remember the girls dancing to the fight song, “Aye –Zigga-Zoomba” and other Carolina tunes. (Keep in mind that this was before any college cheerleaders did gymnastic-style stunts.)

Most of the time, the men simply used their oversized megaphones to lead the Tar Heel faithful in chants. But despite James’ standing solemnly at parade rest, every other female and male cheerleader would smile, sing and dance whenever the band struck up “Dixie,” which was usually several times per game.

What in the world were we thinking?

It seems inconceivable to me now that while everyone in the home-side student section must have noticed Jimmy’s respectful, dignified protest, none of the cheerleaders discussed it among ourselves as far as I know.

I don’t remember anyone in the stands ever mentioning it, either. To the best of my recollection, there were no stories, letters, editorials or op-eds in the Daily Tar Heel; no coverage in other newspapers and no faculty remonstrance.

There was only Jimmy Womack standing quietly while the rest of us cavorted to this anthem of the old South.

Since I seem to recall his learning the routine along with the rest of us at the beach, Jimmy apparently devised his strategy between the end of that get-together and the beginning of the football season.

But even though he never tried to enlist any of the other squad members in the move, you would think we would have quickly gotten our heads together and decided to simply eliminate that particular routine for the sake of tacitly supporting Jimmy and acknowledging his obvious point.

Some believe, even today, that to have done so would have represented political correctness. Maybe so. But all of us loved Jimmy’s 150-watt smile and his mischievous sense of humor.

I think that for our group, it would have been more a message of simple friendship that said, “Whatever makes you happy without trampling on the rights of others makes me happy.”

I’ve never run into Jimmy Womack in the 50-plus years since all this took place, but I would love to have the chance to discuss it with him now. Maybe he would tell me that one person defying conventionality turned out to be even more powerful than a dozen persons doing so, at least in that particular situation.

Since I have thought of Jimmy and this one action scores of times over the decades, I’d have a hard time arguing with him.

Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Visit this story on reflector.com for video of Bob’s review of the Rose Hill Restaurant.Contact him at bgarner2662@gmail.com