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Tuesday January 31st

UNC's legacy of slavery doesn't end with Silent Sam

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On Wednesday morning, a large Confederate flag sat propped on H.K. Edgerton’s left hip. 

He wore a Confederate infantry uniform, fit with gold buttons and reunion medals. His war boots pressed the McCorkle Place lawn that was still damp and torn from two nights earlier.

When Silent Sam’s head dented the ground on Monday night, one conversation might have ended. But a broader one — one about slavery’s omnipresence and legacy at UNC outside of Silent Sam — began as soon as the dust settled.

Edgerton, a Black man whose great-great-grandfather worked as a surgeon's assistant for the Confederacy and whose family has lived in the Carolinas for centuries, stood in front of the foundation that once supported the nondescript Confederate soldier. 

“The problem that we have here is that these folks only teach one side of history," Edgerton said.

The President of Southern Hertiage, HK Edgerton, stands outside  of the Silent Sam podium on Wednesday August 22. 

To many, Silent Sam’s removal was momentous — a milestone in the ultimate goal of rinsing the University of its legacy of slavery, of reshaping UNC so that it is a welcoming and safe space for everyone. 

Yet, to many others like Edgerton, Silent Sam’s removal is erasing history in an attempt to cleanse the permanent stain of slavery.

But the mark that slavery left on UNC doesn’t begin and end with Silent Sam. After all, the oldest public university in the country blossomed in a culture where slavery was ubiquitous and accepted. Buildings intended to honor Confederate dead are still functional; academic halls and streets are still named after rich slaveholders. 

And, in light of this, the struggle to find the right way to approach this kind of history is far from over. 

Interpreting the past

Cameron Avenue, a street running through the heart of UNC’s campus, is named after Paul Cameron, who was the wealthiest man in North Carolina when he died in 1891. 

He served as president of the Alumni Association and chairperson of the Building Committee. He worked to coordinate funds for different projects and was an important patron for the University for its 1875 reopening after classes halted during the Civil War. He believed in public education and offered scholarship funds for students in need.

In 1889, he delivered a dedicatory address for Swain Memorial Hall — a building he donated $8,000 to — and the avenue in front of it was later named after him.

Cameron Avenue runs through North Campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

In her book, “Piedmont Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina,” historian Jean Bradley Anderson recalls that after Cameron’s death, the University’s faculty described him as a “splendid embodiment of the Southern planter, an almost-ideal symbol of the Southern life and character of the olden times… Few men have enjoyed so fine a combination of mental, physical and moral power.”

Regardless of how important he was to the foundation of UNC, Cameron doesn’t represent the ideals of the University today. 

According to a University website, he owned more than 1,000 slaves —  and owned the most slaves of any slave owner in the state in 1860.

Per Anderson, he saw schooling and education as a "white man’s means to achieve economic independence and self-sufficiency.” He considered Black people to be an “inferior race,” and thought women should be “barred by their sex” from certain activities like voting. When a school in Hillsborough was up for auction in 1872, Cameron bought it before it could be used as a school for “Negro” girls.

Memorial Hall, which houses Carolina Performing Arts, was initially named as Swain Memorial Hall and was built to remember notable alumni, including those “we lost in the War,” as Cameron wrote in an 1883 letter. Battle Hall is named after the man who presided over the University after the Civil War, who also owned slaves. Old East, the first building on campus, was built by slave labor.

UNC geography professor Christian Lentz said public opinion and the political climate in relation to monuments shift over time.

“With those changes in society, the meanings we attribute to things on the landscape, like monuments and memorials, also change," he said.

Lentz said he initially viewed Silent Sam as a useful way to talk about an imperfect part of American history.

But the violent marches in Charlottesville last year changed his mind.

“Then it became a matter of public safety, and it became a matter of interpreting what that monument really stood for,” Lentz said. “And its meaning shifted in that moment, I think, from a sculpture, if you will, about which we could talk about the past in informed ways to something that stood irrevocably with white supremacy.”

Preparing for the future

This month at the University of Virginia, the President’s Commission on the University and Slavery released a report on how enslaved people were “central” to building and maintaining the school. The bulk of the document detailed the history of slaves, and the work they put in on campus. 

It also set a national advisory board for the commission that included representatives from schools that have their own legacies of slavery — including UNC-Chapel Hill, Brown University and the University of Alabama.

The report offered recommendations for the school to move forward given the new findings from its past. The suggestions primarily pertained to education and included the construction of a memorial to slaves, renovating a historical site and providing research endowments to study the school’s history. 

Lentz agrees that education is the first step in addressing the landmarks that highlight UNC’s slave legacy. He said it is something school educators, community journalists, individuals and even the University ought to take up. For instance, he thought it would be reasonable for incoming first-years to be required to go on the Black and Blue Tour, which covers the history and involvement of African Americans on campus, during their college orientation.

He did, however, call it unreasonable to change every name and discard everything that was ever connected to the institution of slavery. Lentz seeks a more nuanced approach than starting from scratch, where the UNC community is mindful of who is being commemorated on campus. He mentioned the Unsung Founder’s Memorial, a landmark constructed in 2005 to counter Silent Sam and honor the “people of color bond or free” who “helped build the Carolina we cherish today.”

The Unsung Founders Memorial was a subject of debate earlier this year, 2017, during the Silent Sam sit-in.

Lentz said that devoting monuments to people, rather than entire races or groups, can be a more powerful way to embolden a marginalized community.

“One of the things I learned from the Black and Blue Tour is that there are actually nameable African American alums who are donors that we could celebrate and elevate them to the same kind of pedestal as people like Cameron were,” he said.

Senior Nicho Stevens, a Black student activist, suggested compiling different information and building a museum on campus to contextualize the University's history.

“Acknowledging that somebody did something bad doesn't mean that you're terrible as a country, or like, it's not what makes you terrible as a person,” Stevens said. “If they hire the right people to put together some kind of museum where they could put Silent Sam or they could put articles about Cameron or about the history of the University, that would be cool.”

Stevens' primary goal, for the longest time, was to somehow be a part of the movement to remove Silent Sam from the upper quad’s skyline.

He knew of other civil rights initiatives. He knew that the slave legacy wouldn’t dissolve with the statue’s removal. He knows the solution still needs direction.

But Tuesday afternoon, Stevens walked up to the remains by himself. The statue that once greeted him when he passed through North Campus — the symbol that once made him feel like he didn’t belong at UNC — felt less imposing. He lingered for a few minutes, without blinking. A satisfied smile grew on his face.

“Sometimes, you feel like you’re not making any progress,” Stevens said. “But seeing this I think gives people hope that if you feel something, you can make that change.”


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