“We felt that the monument itself obviously is a very powerful symbol. It's something that evokes a lot of emotion and feelings in people in a variety of ways,” Lau said. “We really had this sense that the monument coming down in Durham was a part of this story of our community grappling with history.”
Lau emphasized the importance of community engagement in the decision-making process. As they developed their ideas, the committee took suggestions through meetings and an online form where Durham residents could comment.
Responses to the form ranged from placing the statue back in its original position to discarding it, but some comments reflected ideas later presented in the committee report.
Eight public meetings provided additional opportunities for input.
"One of the challenges, in general, is the sometimes gap between what academic historians are saying and writing and thinking, how they might be interpreting the past and the evidence they're collecting, and the public understanding of the past,” Lau said. “It's hard to have conversation there, to create opportunity for people to actually have a dialogue.”
Commissioners have not met yet to discuss the recommendations, but talks will occur soon, Commissioner Heidi Carter said.
“I think, having read over them and having heard their presentation, that the recommendations all have merit, and we'll need to think carefully about each one,” Carter said.
She congratulated the committee for their findings and said other commissioners are also grateful. Lau said public comments maintained a similarly positive tone.
“We were pleased that, barring some social media comments, the public welcomed this process in a spirit of civil and future-oriented discussion,” the report stated.
Legal challenges surround manipulating monuments in any way, according to a 2015 N.C. statute. An “object of remembrance” may only be relocated in certain circumstances and must be moved to a position of similar prominence.
Lau said the members of the committee had to tread cautiously to avoid overstepping their legal bounds, but the law does not specify what ought to be done with a completely destroyed monument.
Compared to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Board of Trustee’s efforts to find a solution for the Confederate monument on UNC’s campus, the Durham committee’s process contained fundamental differences, Lau said.
“There were a very limited number of people that were involved in making a lot of the decisions about Silent Sam,” Lau said. “While we were 12 people, there was a pretty open, robust set of conversations designed to give people a chance to make comments, to put them on the record, to be heard in public, to be considered by decision makers.”
The Office of the Chancellor created an email inbox for public comment, and one comment on the UNC plan was extremely similar to Folt and the Board of Trustees’ rejected plan.
“Our report is a set of recommendations to our elected officials,” Lau said. “Right now, the Silent Sam situation is operating very differently in that students don't elect the chancellor. It's a whole different dynamic with the communities that are part of Silent Sam.”