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'Distorted and false version of history': CPA responds to Silent Sam settlement

Former Chancellor James Moeser speaks out against the UNC System's decision to fund a multi-million dollar trust for a Confederate organization

A plaque to honor William Alexander Graham, Confederate States Senator among many other titles, is pictured on display in Memorial Hall on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. After the UNC System's decision to give funding and perpetual rights to Silent Sam to the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, Carolina Performing Arts released a statement on how surprised they were about the decision. Though CPA's statement recognized the plaques as a reminder of Southern history, their future is unknown.

On Dec. 20, 2019, Carolina Performing Arts released a statement on the UNC System's decision to provide the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) with a $2.5 million trust and the perpetual rights to Silent Sam. 

In the press release, Interim Executive and Artistic Director and Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser said CPA is "appalled at the agreement entered into on our behalf by the UNC System Board of Governors," and said granting money from the earnings of UNC’s endowment "to an organization that is dedicated to a distorted and false version of history is an action contrary to this University’s search for truth."

In conversation, Moeser said the settlement strongly misrepresents the University, and as America’s first public university, UNC must acknowledge the sins of its forefathers.

“We carry the nobility of the American experiment in democracy, but also, slavery was America’s original sin, so we deal with the legacy of racism and white supremacy,” Moeser said. “It’s embedded in our history.”

CPA’s statement also recognized that much of the art produced and presented by CPA is “in a building filled with these reminders,” referencing the tablets in Memorial Hall memorializing Confederate alumni.

When Memorial Hall was rebuilt in 1931, it was dedicated to the memory of David Lowry Swain, the governor of North Carolina from 1832 to 1835, as well as to UNC alumni who died in the Civil War and World War I. 

In 2005, Memorial Hall was “re-dedicated” by Moeser — who was chancellor at the time — to expand remembrance to all members of the UNC community who died serving their country, while also distancing the building from its Confederate ties.

Now, Moeser said he anticipates that Memorial Hall could become a locus for campus protest and conversation about racism because of the reminders of those ties.

“We have all kinds of plaques in the hallways that remind us of the founders of the University. Some of them are only identified as ‘John Smith, planter,’ and then there are other people who are identified clearly as people who are signers of the original charter, they’re important people,” Moeser said. “But on either side of the proscenium are memorial plaques to the alumni Confederate war dead."

Christina Rodriguez, associate director of marketing and communications for CPA, said at this point, CPA has officially lodged a request through former Chancellor Moeser to move the conversation about the future of the tablets forward. 

Rodriguez also said the topic is a complex one because Memorial Hall is owned by the University, which means CPA does not hold decision-making power regarding what happens next, but said it would likely mean closing Memorial Hall for renovation — something she guessed would mean CPA would not be able to hold performances there for at least a season.

While CPA also uses Moeser Auditorium and CURRENT ArtSpace for performances, and is a steward of Historic Playmakers Theatre and Gerrard Hall, the vast majority of its performance season operates out of Memorial Hall because it’s the largest venue — which Rodriguez said would make their season look very different.

“Obviously it’s got the standard proscenium theatre, and because it has that vast stage structure, it allows for many performances that wouldn’t physically fit production-wise in these other venues,” Rodriguez said. “So it would certainly impact our season, I think significantly.”

Rodriguez said CPA is currently looking at ways the organization can contextualize and acknowledge the history of Memorial Hall, while also furthering their mission to create space for discourse and curiosity.

“I think a lot of the art we present and increasingly produce here is quite responsive to the things that are going on around us,” Rodriguez said. “And we’re looking for ways to really create space for artists that are already here and not just coming from abroad or from a different state or what have you — and that really opens up a whole new avenue for discourse that is very relevant to where we live and work and go to school.”

Moeser also recognized the impact the settlement will have on arts organizations and communities within UNC, and said it is part of CPA’s mission to address — through art — the difficult issues that confront society by bringing in artists of color, women artists and artists of other cultures.

“Part of what we say is we bring the world to Carolina,” Moeser said. “Because art is spoken in many languages in all cultures.”

While the future for the plaques in Memorial Hall remains unclear, Rodriguez said CPA hopes to push for viable and meaningful solutions towards contextualizing and acknowledging the history of the building, while also honoring the organization’s values to open doors for experiences exploring the vast complexity of the South.

“I think every generation can feel like they’re in the most troubled times that have ever been, and it certainly does feel like that now,” Rodriguez said. “So for us, it’s our job collectively to look at the ways we can serve that, and I think the people who work here really believe in the power and the arts and the power of the artists to be a voice for dissent and discourse.”


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