Confederate statue’s fate on UNC campus hangs in the balance
Until it was toppled by protesters in August, “Silent Sam” stood for more than a century on a pedestal at an entrance to the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill.
Opponents of the bronze statue of an anonymous, rifle-toting Confederate soldier hoped its fall would hasten a fate similar to other Confederate monuments across the country: permanent banishment.
Yet Silent Sam stands a chance at revival.
The university’s chancellor and Board of Trustees will decide the statue’s fate this month after delaying a November decision to take more time to “fully evaluate” the options.
Students have called for the monument to be moved to a less prominent place, while a faculty committee wants it removed from campus.
Meanwhile, the university system’s Board of Governors, to which the trustee board will make its recommendation, has asked for a “lawful and lasting” plan to preserve the monument.
The decision looms large on the UNC campus, where Chancellor Carol L. Folt last month said that an email created for anyone to submit ideas about the statue received thousands of responses.
“I noticed sometimes you’d get them in the middle of the night, so people were really thinking about it,” Folt said. “I’m pretty moved by the extent to which people took that very seriously.”
A ‘cultural reckoning’
Silent Sam was dedicated in 1913 — its construction at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy — to remember the “sons of the University who died for their beloved Southland 1861-1865,” says UNC’s website.
At its dedication, Confederate veteran Julian Shakespeare Carr praised the Confederate army for “sav[ing] the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” according to the university’s archives.
The monument, which was first called “Silent Sam” in 1954 by the campus newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, over the years faced only occasional protests and defacing. In an attempt to add context, a monument to slaves — called the Unsung Founders Memorial — was dedicated 100 feet away in 2005.
A gift from the UNC class of 2002, the memorial shows a black granite tablet being supported by 300 bronze figurines representing the slaves who built the university in its early days. But its location is an issue to some.
“You can’t see the Unsung Founder’s Memorial from far away. You have to be there to see it,” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, UNC associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South, a research institute at UNC.
Despite its history, Silent Sam faced only occasional protests and defacing until recently. Campaigns to remove Confederate monuments from public property gained traction after the 2015 murder of nine African-Americans by a self-described white supremacist at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Since then, Confederate statues, monuments and flags have come down in North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Maryland and elsewhere.
“This is part of a much bigger cultural reckoning, but one much rooted in the American South. We live in a culture and country that hasn’t sufficiently reckoned with its darker history,” said Cary Levine of the faculty executive committee, which moderated a dozen faculty workshops on the statue’s future.
The week after about 250 protesters brought down Silent Sam, Folt said the Board of Governors had given her and the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees a “clear path to identify a safe, legal and alternative location for Silent Sam.”
“It has become apparent to all that the monument, displayed where it was, is extremely divisive and a threat to public safety, and the day-to-day mission of the University,” Folt said in a statement.
Removing the statue might require a change to a state law that prevents the removal of state monuments without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.
‘We do not glorify our violent past’
The future of Silent Sam has been a topic of discussion for months among the university’s students, staff, faculty and the wider Chapel Hill community.
The university’s Student Government Association has called for the statue to be moved to another site on campus.
The SGA said it should be put “in a museum or library collection while making it clear that we do not glorify our violent past.”
Students also have suggested adding “contextualization” — or proper historical perspective — or putting up another sculpture to replace Silent Sam, said Emily Blackburn, undergraduate student body vice president and chair of a student advisory committee.
“Those most outspoken about the issue, I would say they’re in favor of contextualization,” Blackburn said. “I think that’s what it all boils down to no matter your thoughts on the statue itself.”
A letter in The Daily Tar Heel signed by 54 African-American members of UNC’s faculty took a harder line.
“There is no way to re-erect the statue without valorizing an incomplete version of history,” the letter read. “A symbol of racism, violence, and white supremacy has no place on our 21st century campus often called the ‘University of the People.’ “
Levine and faculty council chairwoman Leslie Parise said faculty members considered proposing that the university donate the monument to the Smithsonian Institute, melt the statue down to commemorative coins, or place it in UNC’s historic cemetery.
The faculty council ultimately passed a resolution supporting UNC Black Faculty’s call for the removal of Silent Sam from campus.
Members of a group called ActBac voiced support for keeping Silent Sam. The group did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. The United Daughters of the Confederacy also did not respond to a request for comment.
Levine said he believes UNC should be at the “forefront of thought” on the Confederate monument debate.
“There are certain moments in history where leadership is warranted, even if there is political or financial risk,” Levine said. “Sometimes those on the side of justice and knowledge need to stand up and make it clear what is right and what is wrong. I think this is one of those instances.”