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Finding New Home for Silent Sam

Chapel Hill chancellor says she will propose new site for toppled Confederate monument. Some wonder why it should be anywhere on campus, and draw attention to statue's racist roots.

September 4, 2018
 
Silent Sam after protesters pulled it down

The battle over Silent Sam -- the Confederate monument protesters toppled last month -- took a new turn Friday with the announcement that the monument will return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's campus, but in a new, as yet unspecified, location.

Whether that announcement will calm a tense campus situation -- in which there were multiple protests in the last week, leading to arrests -- remains to be seen. The statue has been the subject of debate for years, with many students and faculty members calling for its removal, but many politicians insisting that it stay put. Of late, faculty critics at UNC and elsewhere have been drawing more attention to the racist roots behind the statue, challenging the idea that Silent Sam is simply a monument to the Confederate war dead.

Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton University, wrote on Twitter that those endorsing a plan to keep Silent Sam anywhere on campus should read aloud the dedication speech given in 1913 for the statue, in which one of those celebrating the statue said that he had "horse-whipped a Negro wench" in defense of "the Anglo-Saxon race."

While scores of faculty members at UNC have been calling for the university not to restore Silent Sam, members of the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors (and many Republican politicians) have invoked a 2015 law passed as other states were moving or taking down Confederate statues.

That law gave power to move state-owned statues to the North Carolina Historical Commission and generally said that the commission shouldn't move monuments unless necessary to preserve them. The law bans relocation to museums or cemeteries and requires that any new location be a "site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated."

The UNC system board -- where some members have expressed strong support for the law -- asked Chapel Hill officials for a plan to find a new home for Silent Sam.

On Friday, Chancellor Carol L. Folt issued an open letter in which she announced that the system has given her until Nov. 15 to come up with a plan for Silent Sam.

She acknowledged more explicitly than in the past the racist history behind the statue, and said that it should not go back to where it has been, in the center of campus.

"We need to respect that, apart from the anger and hatred that has been expressed, there are different meanings attached to this monument by different people in our communities," Folt said. "Many may still be unaware of the devastating, racist commentary made at its dedication in 1913 by a member of the Board of Trustees. Our university repudiates those words and the system of oppression they represent. In forum after forum, the stories told by so many reveal the pain and hurt that come from that speech, and from the presence, at the front door of the university they love, of the monument they associate with it."

But Folt went on to express sympathy for those who have wanted Silent Sam to be at the center of campus.

"At the same time, we also hear daily from our community, citizens from across North Carolina and the country, who have always seen the statue as a memorial to fallen soldiers, many of them family members," Folt said. "I hope we can agree that there is a difference between those who commemorate their fallen and people who want a restoration of white rule. Reconciliation of our past and our present requires us to reach deep into our hearts and across the state to the people we serve."

Folt said that she would work to come up with a plan to keep Silent Sam on campus, but in some new place. "Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university," she said.

It may be difficult for UNC to come up with a solution that satisfies those pushing for a place of honor for Silent Sam and those who think the statue doesn't reflect anything that should be honored.

The Move Silent Sam Coalition sent the following statement to Inside Higher Ed on the chancellor's announcement: "We welcome Chancellor Folt’s acknowledgement that the Confederate monument has sparked decades of conflict and does not belong at the university’s 'front door.' Folt's ongoing efforts to preserve and honor the monument have inflamed a dangerous situation, however, and there is no site on our campus for this racist relic. If this is indeed a time for healing, our chancellor must drop criminal and honor court charges against the courageous activists who dared to make these hard truths about Silent Sam visible."

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