Growing up in Chapel Hill, the UNC campus was my personal playground — an extended front yard, with Wilson Library on the south and Silent Sam on the north, bookending my childhood romping grounds. With my grandfather, Charles E. Rush, as head librarian at Wilson, where also my mom worked as a staffer, the grand old library at the end of Polk Place was practically home away from home. And for a boy on a bike, the campus served as a giant slalom course.
Finding one’s way around was simple enough: Franklin Street ran roughly east-west, so those points were fixed. My grandfather’s library and Silent Sam laid out the north-south axis, helping the little traveler on his trusty Schwinn navigate his college town world. These were the points on my personal compass.
And here’s the thing: Silent Sam was just a landmark, it had no connotative value to me back then, except to serve as my North Star.
So, when years later, in the winter of ’67 as a UNC senior, I made this photograph for The Daily Tar Heel, it never occurred to me that the silhouetted figure was in any way offensive or controversial — nor that it would ever vanish. Of course, now I realize how naïve I was, as a white boy going to a largely white University. And I wholeheartedly agree now, Sam has no place on this campus.
Yet, this old townie is ambivalent. For as odious as what the statue came to mean and symbolize, I treasure this image, captured on a warm foggy night following a snowfall 52 years ago, for very personal reasons: the DTH office occupied a suite of fusty old cramped offices upstairs in Graham Memorial Building, just to the east of McCorkle Place. My collegiate apartment lay directly across Franklin Street, upstairs over what is now Time Out. I even had a darkroom in the apartment’s garbage room. For much of my undergraduate life, I lived, breathed, ate, slept, even loved DTH. In this photo, Sam seems to be protectively watching over my entire college landscape.
Finally, on a lighter note, Sam always makes me chuckle for another personal reason. On a long-ago campus tour, when I introduced my then 6-year-old son to Silent Sam, he decided he’d give the statue his own moniker, which to this day remains known in our family as “Quiet Bill.”
So, when you look at this photograph, don’t just see what you think you see. I invite you to see the layers of meaning.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.