This fall brings the first academic year that a full campus of undergraduate students will have never walked past the Silent Sam statue.
A group of student and community activists toppled the confederate statue in August 2018, and it was then removed from campus.
The UNC System entered into a $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans in November 2019 over possession of the statue. That February, following community opposition, the settlement was ruled void.
A student-faculty group represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a group of UNC alumni and donors each filed an amicus brief in favor of overturning the settlement. Some of the Black Pioneers — a group who graduated from UNC during the Civil Rights Movement — were also on the alumni-donor amicus brief.
Some community members involved in the settlement reversal gathered this past week to reflect on the case and to examine the impacts of Silent Sam at the University.
“It says to me that no matter how hard the struggle and no matter how hopeless it seems at times, if we continue to stay vigilant and work to eliminate injustices," said Walter Jackson, chairperson of UNC's Black Pioneers, 1967 UNC alumnus and amici on the brief. "Even though progress might be slow, over the long term, it is possible to implement change in a system that seems so resistant to change."
One amicus brief — submitted in January 2020 prior to the February settlement reversal — refuted any claims of ownership that the SCV made in relation to the Silent Sam statue, asserting the University had always owned it as a matter of property law. The brief had the support of 88 UNC alumni and donors.
The SCV had alleged that the United Daughters of the Confederacy made a conditional gift of the statue to the University. The Sons of Confederate Veterans said that UNC violated a condition on that gift by removing the statue from campus, and said United Daughters of the Confederacy conveyed ownership of the statue to the SCV in 2019.
The brief referred to the affidavit of former University Historian Cecelia Moore, including historical records she gathered showing that the UDC never gifted the statue to the University.
"SCV never had an ownership interest in the monument, and thus did not have standing to bring this suit," the brief read.
Attorney Hugh Stevens, a 1965 UNC alumnus, said he contacted Moore following the November 2019 settlement.
“I sent her the complaint and she read it and she said, ‘No, that's just not the way it happened. The Daughters of the Confederacy never owned this statue,’” Stevens said. “And so I talked to her about whether we could put together an affidavit that she would sign that would lay out the facts as the historical documents showed them to be.”
Moore said that, in her role on the team, she looked at questions from the historical record about who technically owned the statue.
In the over 100 years that the monument had been sitting on the UNC campus, Moore said that no one from the University had ever contacted the UDC about ownership of the statue.
“I felt pretty confident as a historian in saying there is nothing in the record to indicate that the United Daughters of the Confederacy owned this model,” Moore said.
Reflecting on the brief, Stevens said that his team's work was important to the University community.
“I think we represented a lot of people who felt that paying a basically white supremacist group two and a half million dollars to take custody of it was just an outrageous thing to do,” Stevens said. “Not just the money, but the whole sort of enterprise just struck us as very inappropriate thing to do."
He said that the amici team was motivated by both legal and historical arguments against the settlement. The team also knew that submitting an amicus brief in the case was the right thing to do, he said.
Jackson said many Black alumni and students felt it was long past time for the Silent Sam statue to be removed from campus.
“But as times changed and a new generation of African American students came along, we certainly didn’t want them to have to be subjected to walking past a Confederate memorial,” Jackson said. “We saw it as an affront to the dignity of African American people.”
Jackson said he thinks the legal fight he took part in showed many people that he and his team refused to stand passively back.
“We have resolve, we're committed," Jackson said. "We believe in taking a stand for things that we believe in. The actions we took here clearly showed that, I think.”
Those who gathered last week — including Jackson, Moore and Stevens — said that they hadn't had the opportunity to reflect on their work together and celebrate the victory of the Silent Sam settlement reversal. The pandemic began shortly after the settlement was successfully reversed in February 2020.
“And so we decided we would have a little gathering at where Silent Sam used to stand and have a photo-op and have lunch and celebrate our accomplishment,” Stevens said.
Stevens said the group’s shared memory of this victory is important because of all the people who didn’t think they could pull it off. He said he thinks this victory was just a little piece of a much bigger matter — that the University needs to confront its past of systemic racism.
Moore said now the University must educate the first group of students who have never seen Silent Sam on campus.
“In some ways, it's a little kind of humbling to think about,” Moore said. “How do you continue to kind of help future students understand it, because it's important they understand it."
Moore said that, in some ways, Silent Sam has not gone away. The statue itself is sitting in storage, she said, and the inequities and racist legacy surrounding the statue continue at the University.
She said that continuing to educate students and the campus community is the real challenge going forward.
"But it was never going to help to leave (Silent Sam) sitting up there in that prominent place on campus,” Moore said.
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