“This is a proposal for change,” George Mitchell wrote in his suggestion for a new sculpture where Silent Sam once stood. One of the first African-American students to graduate from UNC's graduate art department, Mitchell hopes his sculpture will stand for diversity and inclusivity.
One week after demonstrators forcibly toppled Silent Sam, UNC's Board of Governors member Thom Goolsby released a statement announcing Silent Sam would be reinstated on campus in the next 90 days, citing North Carolina General Statute 100-2.1. However, that same statute says Silent Sam may be exempt, if it is deemed a threat to public safety.
In the midst of the debate, Mitchell, now a professional sculptor, had a different vision for the space in Silent Sam’s wake.
In a letter to The Daily Tar Heel, Mitchell presented the design of a sculpture entitled “Freedom” as an alternative to the statue of Silent Sam. Built in 1976, the original model of his sculpture was constructed as an abstract adaptation of the Statue of Liberty. Mitchell said “Freedom” was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
“We’re discussing the future, not the past, of the University of North Carolina,” Mitchell said. “It’s fantastic that the University has remolded itself over the years and has become more diversified, inclusive and accepting of all people now. The sculpture I made would reflect that.”
In the 1970s, professor emeritus Marvin Saltzman recruited Mitchell in order to increase diversity in the UNC graduate art program. Mitchell was one of the first 10 African-American students in UNC’s Master of Fine Arts program, the only African American to graduate in the class of 1975 and the first in his family to attend college.
“I felt that I belonged there,” Mitchell said. “I was the only African American in my class, but I did not feel out of place at all.”
Still, Mitchell said, the University has continued to make strides towards even greater inclusivity, and he hopes his sculpture will symbolize that progress and point in the future.
Altha Cravey, an associate professor in UNC’s Department of Geography, said a new structure that uses the space to open a conversation on racial justice would be a learning opportunity that furthers the University’s mission.
“This is a moment of tremendous opportunity for this University and for our campus to get to wrestle with racial justice,” she said. “Why do we have so many white supremacists honored in the landscape? Why do we have so many people who built their wealth with slavery? How can we turn that into learning — learning from our built environment and learning how to make justice happen?"
Cravey found the proposal especially meaningful because of its ability to open a conversation on how to use the space creatively.
“What does liberation look like on the built landscape?" Cravey said. "Whom do we honor?”
If the University allows it, Mitchell said he will recreate the two foot tall statue into a full monument, roughly six to eight feet tall and placed on a marble pedestal. The University has not confirmed whether or not they have received the proposal.
“There’s still a lot of people living in the past,” Mitchell said. “My sculpture is progressive and futuristic. It’s not looking in the past and basing its ideas on racism, bigotry and oppression. My sculpture is about unity.”
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