Amid euphoric embraces and shouts, dislodged from its pedestal overlooking UNC’s campus for the first time in 115 years, Confederate monument Silent Sam rested in a growing pile of dirt and spit.
By tearing down the statue on Aug. 20 using ropes concealed by large banners, protesters forced an ultimatum on the University. The night’s aftermath, which included mass protests resulting in police using pepper foggers and other forms of force, made 2018 one of the most eventful times for activism in UNC’s history.
Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees announced Monday their proposal for Silent Sam’s new location: a high-security History and Education Center on campus that will house Silent Sam at an initial cost of $5.3 million with an operating cost of $800,000 annually. The announcement sparked backlash, and hundreds of people flooded the streets that night in a protest that led to charges against graduate student activist Maya Little.
One thing is demonstrably clear at the year’s end: divergences between opponents of the statue and UNC leadership are far from settled.
‘A monument to white supremacy’
Opponents of the monument condemn the statue as a celebration of white supremacy.
When speaking at protests this year, Little often referenced the 1970 murder of James Cates, at the time a 22-year-old Black resident of Chapel Hill, by a white supremacist biker gang in the center of UNC’s campus – citing it as an example of racial injustice that has been suppressed by the University while Silent Sam remains. Numerous activists say the University has denied them other avenues to make their voices heard.
Hours before Silent Sam was pulled down, graduate student Jerry Wilson pledged to wear a noose around his neck on-campus at all times until Silent Sam was removed, a visual representation of the discomfort that the statue’s historical context makes him feel as a Black man.
Many historians have agreed with the activists. William Sturkey, a UNC historian who specializes in the history of race in the American South, said in September that the United Daughters of the Confederacy initiated Silent Sam’s construction as one effort in a broader plan that included the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. He also referenced Julian Carr’s speech at Silent Sam’s unveiling, where Carr bragged about whipping a Black woman repeatedly just a short distance from where the statue stood.
“The supporters of the statue have made a decision to either completely ignore any evidence related to the statue, and not just that particular speech, but that particular group, or they have made the other decision to simply not care about Black people,” Sturkey said.
‘Unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible’
Administrative leaders have taken a different view on the problems that the situation suggests. UNC-system Board of Governors Chairperson Harry Smith and outgoing UNC-system President Margaret Spellings issued a joint statement the day after the monument’s toppling, calling the protesters actions “unacceptable, dangerous and incomprehensible.”
“We are a nation of laws — and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated,” the statement said.
BOG member Thom Goolsby, who will take part in the board's decision on the University’s new location proposal for Silent Sam on Dec. 14, tweeted a video a week after the monument fell saying that it would be reinstalled atop its original pedestal within 90 days, a prediction that did not become reality.
At rallies, members of groups like ACTBAC N.C., identified as a neo-Confederate hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the New Confederate States of America have come to UNC to support Silent Sam.
The groups received police escorts to and from the monument’s base, carried Confederate flags and often gave their own interpretation of the Civil War. One Silent Sam supporter, Rusty Alphin, argued at a rally that slavery was the fault of the African people, not the United States, because they “sold their own people.”
Tensions between activists and police have results in officers using smoke bombs, bicycles and sheer physicality. Activists have accused police officers of targeted arrests.
Dylan Mole, a UNC undergraduate student, was punched in the face by ACTBAC member Barry Brown at an Aug. 25 Silent Sam rally. While Mole did not hit back, both individuals were arrested and charged with simple affray. While Mole’s charges were dismissed, he said he received a trespass order that still is in effect, barring him from legally entering McCorkle Place. At least one more activist has mentioned receiving a similar trespass order despite charges he receive being dropped.
A new year
Up until the recent proposal announcement, Chancellor Folt has used her public stance to attempt balancing both sides of the issue. Folt stated in an email from UNC Media Relations that the full extent of the University’s history will be covered in its Silent Sam project.
“We are the only public university to have experienced our nation’s history from the start – war, slavery, Jim Crow laws, suffrage, civil unrest, as well as hope, freedom, emancipation, civil rights, opportunity, access, learning and great discoveries fostered here,” Folt stated.
Critics of the proposal have pointed to its costliness, as well as its suggestion to create a new 40-person "mobile force" police unit for the UNC system aimed specifically at addressing protests.
Folt has expressed hopes that her administration’s proposal will satisfy both sides of the Silent Sam issue. Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University and UNC graduate, said in an email to the DTH that a website documenting Silent Sam’s history would accomplish the same ends without the added costs and controversies.
“It’s important that the university reckon with the original context of Silent Sam, a literal monument to white supremacy, but that doesn’t require the maintenance of the actual, physical statue in a publicly accessible location,” Kruse said.
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