University of North Carolina Pressured to Remove Confederate Statue

Protests surrounding “Silent Sam” on the University of North Carolina campus. Photo courtesy of Martin Kraft.

 

By: Hope Anderson ’22

On Monday, August 20th protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tore down “Silent Sam,” a longstanding confederate monument on campus. The fall concluded an emotional night of singing and chanting while protesters held swaths of black canvas around the statue meant to call out its racist history and physically block it from sight.

Shortly after the figure hit the ground and news spread throughout the student body, hundreds flocked to the sight to take pictures and rejoice, turning that night’s mood from somber determination to elation. The celebration was cut off only by a rainstorm.

The bronze statue was one of many monuments on McCorkle Place, a large, shaded quad bridging campus and Franklin Street, the “Main Street” of Chapel Hill. The statue depicted a young soldier confidently facing Northward, and though the statue’s official name is simply “Confederate Monument,” it is referred to as “Silent Sam” due to the soldier’s gun lacking ammunition.

According to its inscription, Silent Sam was meant to honor students who left the University to fight during the Civil War. Many current students have argued for its removal, saying the monument was disrespectful to students of color and represented racist views no longer applicable to the school.

Though recently tensions have been heightened surrounding Silent Sam, there is a long tradition of protests surrounding the monument. In 1968, Silent Sam was first defaced following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. More recently, in April of 2017, UNC graduate student Maya Little recreated the prior demonstration by dumping a mixture of red paint and her own blood on the figure.

Little was one of several individuals who spoke at Monday’s rally. Protesters gathered at the Peace and Justice Center on Franklin Street at seven in the evening before eventually tearing the statue down later that night. Maura Holt-Ling, a sophomore at UNC, said most people at the protest including herself did not know the statue was going to come down until it was already on the ground.

The statue is one of over 700 Confederate statues nationwide, the majority of which were built decades after the Civil War during the segregation era. Silent Sam, commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was erected in 1913.

Julian Carr, a Chapel Hill resident and graduate of the University, was asked to speak during the statue’s 1913 unveiling. Carr was a white supremacist, and his speech praised confederate soldiers for preserving “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”

Proponents of the statue argue that Silent Sam was not intentionally racist, but rather meant to honor individual soldiers who ultimately gave their lives for their state. However, the context and timing of its construction cause many to question these allegations.

“People don’t come to Silent Sam to pray and to leave flowers,” said UNC history professor William Sturkey in a 2017 interview with the Southern Oral History Program. “They come to wave confederate flags.”

The Saturday following the statue’s fall, activists in favor of its removal clashed with white supremacist groups on Franklin Street and at the statue’s base. Protests continued throughout the next week and delayed the start of rush by one day.

Other students argue that no matter the monument’s intended symbolism, its presence is unwelcome today.

“I’ve heard too many stories of people who are so affected by Silent Sam that they don’t want to walk near it,” said Holt-Ling. “I don’t want the statue there if it’s going to cause other people on this campus to feel uncomfortable.”

North Carolina has the fourth largest number of public confederate symbols, with a total of 169 monuments or markers across the state (counting Silent Sam’s removal). Charlotte is currently home to seven.

Overall, sentiments in support of confederate monuments nationwide assert that the history of the Confederacy is the history of the United States, and no matter the outcome of the Civil War confederate soldiers should be honored alongside other military figures. Other arguments claim the Civil War itself was over more than slavery, and thus Civil War monuments cannot be equated directly to white supremacy.

“I do not believe [Silent Sam] expresses racism,” said Chapel Hill resident Eunice Brock at a Board of Trustees public comment session in November, according to a video published by The News & Observer based in Raleigh. “It represents a part of history which is both good and bad.”

Current laws would have required the University to seek the approval of the state legislature before officially removing the statue. However, Governor Roy Cooper informed the University in late 2017 of a loophole which gave an exception in cases of public safety.

Following the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee. Alternatively, UNC spent $390,000 in the past academic year protecting Silent Sam.

On Tuesday, August 21 UNC Chancellor Carol Folt issued a statement calling Monday night’s actions “unlawful and dangerous” and noting impending investigations into vandalism.

Holt-Ling acknowledges the illegality of the protesters’ actions, but ultimately determined she could not see an alternative.

“It was an illegal thing, but it’s hard to imagine that the Board of Governors or the Board of Trustees would have done anything about it anytime soon,” said Holt-Ling. “How do you reconcile [controversy] when your decision makers are not in agreement with the students?” asked Holt-Ling.

Though Holt-Ling thinks the majority of the student body was in favor of the statue’s removal, many state politicians were not.

The statue is a piece of metal. It’s our understanding of history and trying to present history in today’s time,” said former governor Pat McCrory. “We can find fault in everybody . . . Thomas Jefferson (and) George Washington owned slaves. Should we take down the Washington Monument? The Jefferson Memorial?” McCrory then went as far as to compare the protesters who tore the statue down to book burning Nazis.

Many at the University are still strongly against the statue’s reconstruction. On September 5th, hundreds of faculty members sent a letter to school officials calling it “a monument to white supremacy” and noting that it created “a racially hostile work environment.”

As of Friday, August 31, Chancellor Folt intends to reinstate Silent Sam, though she notes it will no longer be as prominent on campus.

 

Further Reading from The Davidsonian

Charlottesville Violence Shines Light on Local White Supremacist Collective Memory

Davidson Disorientation Emphasizes Racial Inequality in Town, on Campus

Sources:

Press Record Podcast– Episode 16: Confederate Monuments (October 8, 2017) https://sohp.org/podcast/

Transcription of Julian Carr’s speech at the Dedication of Silent Sam (June 2, 1913). Dr. Hillary N. Green, PhD. University of Alabama. http://hgreen.people.ua.edu/transcription-carr-speech.html

Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy. Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.splcenter.org/20180604/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy (July 27th, 2018)

 

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