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Folt explains Silent Sam decision amid student and community backlash

silent sam proposal protest
A protestor shouts at police officers during a protest against Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees' proposal for the Silent Sam's relocation in McCorkle Place on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated which members of the BOT voted in opposition of the plan. Allie McRae and UNC Student Body President Savannah Putnam voted no. Although Bill Keyes spoke at length about his opposition to the plan, he voted yes and said it was the best that could be done under the law. The story has been updated with correct information. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

There was a soft rustle as meeting attendees and members of the media shuffled back into the Chancellor’s Ballroom at the Carolina Inn during Monday's Board of Trustees meeting, but by the time everyone had settled into their seats, you could hear a pin drop. 

Chancellor Carol Folt approached the podium. 

“I’m going to take a few minutes to present a summary of the plan that we’re going to be offering to the Board of Governors,” she said, beginning her outline of the BOT’s proposal for the future of Silent Sam.  

That proposal has been immediately and extensively denounced by students, faculty and graduates alike as the Confederate monument that has incited protest for decades continues to draw lines of division on campus.

Under the BOT’s proposal, the statue would remain on campus, in a "University History and Education Center" that would be “a place to teach and commemorate the University’s full history,” according to a report distributed at the meeting. 

What has most shocked opponents of the proposal is the center’s estimated price tag: $5.3 million in building costs and $800,000 for annual operations, some of which would be spent on educational programming for the center, Folt said after the meeting. 

It is not yet clear where the funding for such a center would come from, although Folt said the BOT would likely ask the Board of Governors for funding for the project.

“This is so important to us that we are going to make it happen,” Folt said. 

The plan also includes efforts to continue and expand the historic contextualization of campus and the construction of a “commemorative space” to serve as a more reflective and inclusive gateway to campus where Silent Sam once stood. Folt mentioned that part of the University’s re-contextualization plan will include renovations of the Unsung Founders Memorial, a monument honors people of color “bond and free” who have shaped UNC’s history.

Chancellor Folt expressed multiple times at the meeting that it was neither her nor the board’s preference that the monument remain on campus, but current state law makes a removal impossible.

“I have a preference to move it off campus but, like everyone here, I swore to obey the law,” Folt said. “And sometimes you don’t agree with laws. But I don’t have the privilege of choosing which laws I agree with and which ones I do not.”

Folt was referring to section 100-2.1 of the N.C. General Statutes, which states that any “objects of remembrance” on public property may not be permanently removed, only relocated. 

The North Carolina Museum of History, at one point considered as a potential relocation site for the monument, was therefore unable to take the monument without breaking the law. Taking possession of the monument would cost the museum about $2 million, Folt said. 

An editorial published by the News & Observer shortly after Silent Sam was pulled down argued that the University should have fought harder to have the law changed or addressed.

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“While the University is probably reading state law correctly, it could and should have urged legislators to reconsider the law, or to at least make an exception in this unique case,” the editorial stated. 

Folt made it clear that neither she nor the board desire to deny the complex or problematic portions of UNC’s history. 

“The contextualization and the history and the access to this history is what is most important,” said board member Chuck Duckett. “It’s an accurate history that’s accessible. We are a university and it speaks to our mission.”

Two members of the Board of Trustees opposed the plan set forth Monday: Allie McRae and UNC Student Body President Savannah Putnam. 

“I simply cannot support putting the Confederate monument back on campus,” Putnam said during the meeting. 

Bill Keyes, the only Black member of the BOT spoke at length about his opposition to the plan but ultimately said it was the best that could be done under the current law and voted in favor of it. 

WUNC reported Thursday that Keyes worked for South Africa's 1980s apartheid government. He declined to speak to The Daily Tar Heel about the report prior to Monday's meeting, but would comment on Silent Sam.

“Work that I did 30 years ago has absolutely no impact on what we’re doing,” Keyes said on Thursday. “More discussion about that, I think, really is a distraction from the real discussion about Silent Sam, how Confederate statues, about the way that people of color perceive, the way the Black people perceive the statues — that is a huge discussion.”

The plan set forth by the BOT today is subject to approval by the UNC Board of Governors and the North Carolina Historical Commission. The next BOG meeting is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Folt said she could not speak for how the BOG would move forward with the proposal or what the timeline may look like for the plan that she and the board set forth today.


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