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The Silent Sam decision could be taken out of UNC's hands with this proposed law

silent sam pedestal removal
Workers remove the base of Silent Sam, which stood on the campus of UNC-CH for over 100 years, the night of Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2019. The removal of the pedestal came hours after Chancellor Carol Folt announced the removal and her resignation after spring graduation.

The UNC administration has grappled for months over the future of Silent Sam. N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-District 107, said it’s time to take the decision out of its hands.

“I think the Board of Governors has had ample time to do something,” Alexander, who represents Mecklenburg County, told The Daily Tar Heel. “And I believe they've just been dithering."

Alexander is the primary sponsor behind House Bill 20, a bill recently introduced to the N.C. House of Representatives that would offer an exception to G.S. 100-2.1, the 2015 law that has kept Silent Sam on campus and with no set future. 

The bill, most recently referred to the Committee on State and Local Government, would allow the University chancellor to permanently relocate Silent Sam off campus and provide a legal out for UNC’s administration, which has yet to devise an accepted plan for the monument’s future since it was toppled on Aug. 20. 

The bill would place the monument in the custody of North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, a government organization that oversees the state’s artistic, historic and natural resources. The department would then place the statue in a cemetery for Confederate soldiers.

It’s the second possible Silent Sam solution introduced to the House since the session began in January. The first, filed Jan. 30, calls for a repeal of the former law and would remove the legal barrier that has kept the chancellor from permanently moving the monument off campus. 

Alexander, who walked past Silent Sam during his days as a UNC student, said HB 20 offers a fair solution that honors the historical value of the monument. 

“There's just not an appropriate museum (that exists),” Alexander said. “That's why it was proposed at one point that we spend $5 million or more to essentially create a space for the statue. That didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.” 

Alexander was referencing the Board of Trustees’ December proposal to build a new “University History and Education Center” for the statue, for an estimated $5 million in building costs and $800,000 in annual operating costs. The proposal, which followed a deadline extension of nearly three weeks, was met with backlash from students, professors and alumni. 

“Because it does represent history and because I wasn't in favor of destroying our history, the most appropriate place for it to be would be in a place of Confederate remembrance, such as a Confederate cemetery,” Alexander said.

Workers removed Silent Sam’s pedestal the night of Jan. 14, the same day former Chancellor Folt announced her resignation and authorization of the removal. Both the monument and its pedestal remain in an undisclosed location, its permanent fate yet undecided. 

After rejecting the BOT’s proposal, the UNC Board of Governors set another deadline — this time, March 15 — for the BOT and BOG to work together to devise another alternative that complies with the law. 

Junior Christian Correa, who previously served on the Undergraduate Senate Select Committee on Silent Sam, said legislative interference is necessary to remove current obstacles to a permanent solution.

“The legislature dug this hole in enacting restrictions on local government control over public monuments, and legislation is necessary to reverse that amendment,” Correa said in a statement to the DTH.

Lindsay Ayling, graduate student and activist, said that Alexander’s proposal raises deeper questions in its pursuit of a permanent answer to the controversy.

“The fact that the state legislature would even need to be involved in this issue, reveals a lot of interest in preserving monuments to the Confederacy,” Ayling said, citing a recent Durham Herald-Sun op-ed by UNC professor William Sturkey on the legacy of one historically black graveyard in Durham. “The fact that these Confederate cemeteries exist and are well maintained is also a statement about our society's values.”

The bill’s introduction raises practical concerns as well, Correa said in his statement. Currently, Republicans control the N.C. House, with 65 members to the Democrats’ 55. 

Alexander hopes public lobbying will help garner votes and overcome this inherent partisan obstacle.

“If the citizens of the state want this issue put behind them and feel that the statues should not be returned to the campus, then they will make the necessary noise to let their representatives know that this is something that they should vote for,” Alexander said. 

During her now-ended chancellorship, Carol Folt expressed her personal desire to permanently remove Silent Sam from campus but emphasized that her ability to do so was restricted by current state law. 

Alexander believes that surmounting that legal obstacle could allow for permanent resolution of the monument controversy.

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“The energy that has been expressed by faculty, students, other people around this issue— (who have been) directing it first at the trustees and the general administration — now it's time to direct that energy to the legislature,” Alexander said. “The ball is kind of back in your court.”


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