By Karen Stahl
The pulse of helicopter blades chopping the air sliced through Jess Casimir’s ears.
Words zoomed around her brain in a flurry as she tried to chase just a few in pursuit of a coherent sentence.
The group around her exchanged confused glances and questioning eyes. Casimir took a deep breath.
“So I usually like to end with my ‘Why Carolina,’” she said on an exhale. “It is why I came to Carolina, why I choose to stay at Carolina and why I love Carolina.”
But her false confidence was no match for the deafening chants of the Silent Sam protestors around her.
Her palms started sweating. Her mind would not stop racing. Her braids hung limply in the humid August air.
Pressure is a feeling Casimir knows all too well.
As a black tour guide at UNC-Chapel Hill, junior Casimir still struggles with giving well-informed, honest tours about Silent Sam, the controversial Confederate monument that stood on McCorkle Place from 1913 to 2018.
“We have to talk about safety at Carolina,” she said. “As a person of color, I feel like you have an obligation to other people of color to be truthful about those situations.”
One of her most difficult tours took place in the middle of a Silent Sam protest.
But, as a daughter of Haitian immigrants, Casimir is no stranger to adversity.
Her mother makes Casimir’s favorite dish – “mori ak banann bouyi,” or salted codfish and boiled plantains – in the comforts of their cozy home near Lake Norman, where her father keeps the temperature at a steady 75 degrees. He grew up on an island and cannot handle colder climates.
Scattered around North Carolina and New York, Casimir’s family speaks Haitian Creole, the French-based official language of Haiti.
Casimir is a first-generation college student. And she is not alone at UNC-CH.
According to the Office of Undergraduate Retention, about 20% of undergraduate students at UNC-CH are first-generation college students, or students whose guardians do not have bachelor’s degrees.
A 2014 report from the office said 34% of first-generation students at UNC-CH are African-American.
But Casimir did not feel supported by her peers when applying to colleges, and she struggled to realize that there were others like her. Coming from a predominantly white community, she felt as though her experiences as a black woman were invalidated.
“I’m a particular type of black person,” she said with a chuckle.
As the youngest of four children, Casimir looked to her older siblings for support. After applying to countless schools and scholarships, she finally settled on UNC-CH because it was the most affordable option.
Her parents knew it was the right choice for her.
“We hear her sing the alma mater in the shower all the time,” said Patricia Elibert-Casimir, her mother. “Any excuse to talk about UNC.”
Though she was excited, being a black, first-generation college student in a class of 4,228 enrolled students – 71% of which were white – was daunting for Casimir.
“It has its challenges, like not feeling wanted at the university,” she said. “Everyone has networks, and you just kind of have to start from the ground up.”
The first night on campus after her parents left, Casimir cried silently in her room. But she resolved to hit the bricks running.
She had no idea what she was in for.
Silent Sam. Minority safety. Being a black woman.
Her first tour, all Casimir could think about was facts.
“I was like, ‘I know they told me not to do that,’” she said. “It’s about your experience, but I was so nervous because that was all I kept doing.”
Casimir began as training as a tour guide in August 2017 and gave her first solo tour in January 2018.
Her training coincided with the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 11, 2017. She immediately began getting questions from parents on tours about Confederate monuments.
After a rally to take down Silent Sam later that month, the volume of questions surrounding the monument skyrocketed.
“It just became a thing that people assumed you were going to touch on, because how could you not?” Casimir said with a tired shrug.
The pressure never ceased.
Every tour had the same recurring themes: Silent Sam. Minority safety. Being a black woman.
Her palms still get sweaty thinking about it.
For nearly a year, Casimir teetered around the issue of Silent Sam, giving a university-tailored response only when a parent specifically asked about it.
“I know it took a toll on her,” said her friend Ashlin Elliott. “I think she managed the tours in a way that her opinion was not known to her groups, even when it was hard for her.”
Then the unthinkable happened.
When Silent Sam fell the night of Aug. 20, 2018, Casimir was lying in bed and scrolling through her phone.
She saw the video on Twitter and let out a shriek, though she was not entirely shocked.
Not after what had happened earlier that day.
Casimir approached the Old Well with her tour group following closely behind. Out of the corner of her right eye, she spotted the familiar Silent Sam crowd.
She braced herself for the questions.
But instead, she was met with the chants of protestors. News crews formed at a distance. Barricades surrounded the statue in layers, like rows of sharp teeth in the mouth of a shark.
She knew this was it.
It was the day before classes began, and Casimir watched the eager faces of prospective students in her tour melt into confusion. Most of the parents and their children were from out of state, and while Silent Sam had garnered national attention, not everybody was up to speed.
She crossed the street and walked around news crews with their trucks, stopping her group in front of the Old Well.
Her palms were sweaty as always, but this time her mind stopped racing. With slow control, she began her final speech.
“This is my ‘Why Carolina,’” she said. “It is why I came to Carolina, why I choose to stay Carolina and why I love Carolina.”
She talked about the different opinions on campus, student activism and selflessly provided her thoughts to the tour group, as her friend Kirsi Oldenburg described it.
Casimir felt like it was the end of the era of questions surrounding the monument. She knew that very soon the discussion would shift to moving forward. Even if she did not know the statue would fall that very night.
“I have to say, as a first-generation college student, I was really nervous about where I wanted to go,” she said to her tour. “Everybody experiences Carolina differently. It’s awesome to see different stories that people tell.”
The pulse of helicopter blades chopping the air sliced through Casimir’s ears.
But with a gentle look back at McCorkle Place, she gave a small smile.
Edited by Paige Colpo.