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Black Alumni protest Silent Sam at Homecoming

Black Alumni
Moses Parker (far left), class of '76, from Upper Marlboro, Ma., discusses his experiences after a vigil against white supremacy in McCorkle Place. Parker believes it is time to "put away the past and move to the future."

A sea of white and Carolina Blue covered Stadium Drive before Saturday’s Homecoming football game, but several individuals wearing all black stood out among the crowd. 

Immediately following the Black Alumni Reunion’s Homecoming tailgate, a group of nine UNC graduates, organized by Janine “Cookie” Bell and Evelyn Dove, walked from the Bell Tower to McCorkle Place. 

According to a press release, the graduates – who requested participants dress in black – aimed to “make a visible statement of presence,” due to “the magnitude and stench of the Silent Sam debacle.”  

“Black Alumni Reunion is one of the largest reunion groups that comes for Homecoming, so we want to use that time to make sure people are aware of what’s going on,” said Dawne Posey-Orr, one of the demonstration participants and a 1978 UNC graduate. 

Participants in the demonstration first stopped to pour libation, a ritual to acknowledge the dead, at the Unsung Founders Memorial, a gift from the UNC Class of 2002 that acknowledges the people of color, enslaved and free, who constructed buildings across UNC’s campus. 

The group then walked to the base of the Silent Sam statue, where Bell read affirmations by Maya Angelou and James Weldon Johnson. Bell also read the press release, which included their intentions in participating in the demonstration. The list of intentions included affirming Black students, faculty and Maya Little. One of the intentions was also to endorse Chancellor Folt's promise in her University Day ceremony speech “to right the wrongs of history, so they're never again inflicted.”

“I’m an administrator, so I understand that it’s difficult to try to work with all constituents,” said Carol Ben-Davies, a 1998 graduate. “But I think at the end of the day, this is too important of an issue.” 

Ben-Davies, who is the assistant dean of students at Purdue University, said when she attended UNC, she wasn’t fully aware of the statue’s history. 

“Once I found out what his main purpose was, the dedication that was there, we need to not have that at the front door of our campus,” Ben-Davies said. “I love my institution, I stay committed, I want to support it any way I can and being vocal like this is another way to stay supportive of a place we love.” 

In an email message sent to the Carolina community in October, Folt said she and the Board of Trustees have a Nov. 15 deadline to present a plan regarding the future of Silent Sam to the UNC-System Board of Governors.

Kim Holmes Isaacs, a 1990 graduate, said she believes students should have a greater say in deciding the next steps for Silent Sam. 

“The marginalized, the Black students, they’re the ones that were traumatized historically and their voice should actually have more weight than those that weren’t,” Holmes said.

Deborah Wilder, a 1975 graduate and demonstration participant, said she sent an email to the Board of Trustees expressing her dissatisfaction with how the University approached the Silent Sam controversy. 

“I said, ‘You had the opportunity to make this right, and you let it linger, and let it linger and let it linger until the students did what the felt they needed to do,’” Wilder said. “I would tell the Board of Trustees and the Chancellor to listen. Listen to the voices of the students. Listen to the voices of the faculty. Listen to the voices of the Chapel Hill community who are saying this should not occur and the statue should not be brought back.”

Billie Burney-Scott, a 1989 graduate, said she believes the controversy surrounding Silent Sam holds a particular weight given current events.

“We’re in a time period where everything we do — whether it’s on a college campus, in the voting box, rebuilding our communities — everything we do matters,” Burney-Scott said. “It matters for us who are here; it matters for the folk who came here before us. We know we stand on shoulders of folk who were treated abysmally when they were students here.” 

In her closing remarks, Bell said she believes “knowledge is power,” and charged her fellow demonstration participants to engage in discussion. 

“Once you know something, you can’t act like you don’t,” Bell said. “Raise awareness, ponder within ourselves, the meanings of things and the importance of the steps we make in our own lives. We have power we hold in our own hands.” 


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