The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce released a statement Aug. 28 supporting the recent requests for the removal of UNC’s confederate soldier statue, Silent Sam, and apologized for their past support of segregation before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
The need for continued work towards racial equality was reiterated in the statement released by a collaboration of four members from the business leadership organization.
The statue is unrepresentative of what the community advocates for and therefore should not be the centerpiece of campus, said Aaron Nelson, the president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.
“After what happened in Charlottesville and seeing all the activity come on campus, it seemed like the right time for the business community to show some moral leadership,” Nelson said. “We think that in context, we have had students die in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Revolutionary War, and of all the war dead that we could honor, to choose that one and to put it so front and center seems inappropriate.”
The statement was signed by Nelson, Chair Joel Levy, Vice Chair Reagan Greene Pruitt and Government Affairs Committee Chair Brett Bushnell.
They do not see the removal of the statue as a blindness toward the segregation and racism that has occurred, but instead a step toward displaying what UNC’s standards are now, according to the news release.
“The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce believes a statue honoring those who fought to secede from our nation and for the right to enslave human beings, alienates our visitors, students, business leaders and community members,” the news release said. “The memorial’s central position on our campus undermines our community’s shared commitment to diversity and inclusion."
Nelson said that the Chamber of Commerce has received mixed public comments on their support for Silent Sam’s removal.
Michael Parker, a Chapel Hill town council member, commended the chamber for the statement.
“I think it shows that our business community is in full support of the values that we in Chapel Hill share,” said Parker. “When you look at what the statue commemorates and what historical context it was erected in, you can see that it was an ode to white supremacy.”
Nancy Oates, a Chapel Hill town council member, said that she was less supportive of the removal of Silent Sam.
“Generally, I am suspicious of any knee-jerk reactions — when everyone all at once decides that these statues that have been up for hundreds of years have to come down, I hesitate,” Oates said. “We can’t erase our bad behavior — I see the statues as scars of things we did and now regret, and a reminder that we should not do this again.”
Oates said she would support the removal of Silent Sam to a war memorial, but it should serve as a reminder of the racial injustice that still exists.
Nelson said he believed the statue dissuaded business, prospective students and prospective faculty, as it is not inclusive or welcoming.
“We think that when businesses choose to relocate to our area or whether to grow and expand, they are looking for a community that shares their values,” Nelson said. “We think that this is a good time for our community to have a bigger conversation about race and about our history — even in liberal, progressive college towns, there are still great challenges about race and inequity. And we wish to be part of that conversation, we wish to convene that conversation and we think it is the right time for that conversation.”
Nelson said that he hoped the statement would spur movement toward the removal of Silent Sam.
“It is hard to know at the end what made the difference — but every time someone speaks up it makes it easier for others to as well,” Nelson said.
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