Historians refer to the thousands of Confederate monuments erected across Southern states in the decades following the Civil War as “lost cause” monuments, which glorify the Confederate cause. Many of these monuments, like Silent Sam, were gifts from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The North Carolina chapter of the UDC did not respond to requests for comment.
“The lost cause mythology denied the true nature of the war, and supporters put up monuments in 1900, which was the start of the Jim Crow era, as a celebration of the recapture of the South,” Watson said.
History professor Fitzhugh Brundage said popular debate about Silent Sam began in the 1960s. It was vandalized days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
“Whenever there was a heated debate about race in Chapel Hill, there was some likelihood that Silent Sam would be brought into it,” Brundage said.
In his 39 years at UNC, Watson said the debate has never been as sustained as it is now.
“I used to feel movements to take down the monument would required more effort than it’d be worth,” he said. “But I’ve come to realize that symbols are important, and if enough people decided to take it down, I’d support it.”
Andrew Brennen, political director for UNC Young Democrats, said he believes Silent Sam does not have a place on campus.
“It honors and celebrates white supremacy,” Brennen said. “To me, it doesn’t seem to have a place at UNC in 2015.”
Jeremy Mckellar, president of the Black Student Movement, said he understands the monument is a part of UNC’s history but finds it makes students of color feel uncomfortable.
“Do we keep it because it’s the history of our nation, or do we tear it down because of what it represents? I’m still not sure what the answer is,” Mckellar said.
Mckellar worried that the vandalism will make University leaders less likely to cooperate with people who want the statue to be removed.
“I’m not a big supporter of vandalism, but it may have been needed to bring more attention to it,” Mckellar said. “However, I would advise students that we need to be thoughtful with our actions.”
Student Body President Houston Summers said the spray paint is the result of frustration that the administration and student government should address.
“It’s a manifestation of this lack of student voice on campus,” Summers said. “It’s a manifestation of larger social issues that are being felt nationwide right now.”
Summers said he will work to involve students in the conversations surrounding contextualization.
“The goal is to have substantive opportunities for concerned students to get involved as soon as they get back to campus,” Summers said.