The University of North Carolina Board of Governors on Friday rejected a plan to build a new history center on the Chapel Hill campus to house Silent Sam, a Confederate monument widely seen on the campus as a symbol of white supremacy.
Chapel Hill's campus board and its chancellor, Carol Folt, proposed spending $5 million on a history center that would house the monument and also tell the story of race at the university. Folt has said she would prefer for the statue to be moved off campus but that North Carolina law generally bars moving such monuments off campus. Protesters toppled the statue in August (at right), and many fear that restoring it to its old location would simply lead to more attempts to bring it down. Student and faculty groups have demanded that the statue be kept off campus, and some teaching assistants have held a grading strike to protest the plan to bring the statue back, even in a history center. There were also protests outside Friday's meeting. Many have also questioned spending money to house and protect the statue.
In the days prior to the Board of Governors vote, group after group issued statements condemning the plan to build a new facility to house Silent Sam. Many academic departments and student groups have offered various reasons why the statue should not return to campus in any form. Many have noted that it was placed there by champions of white supremacy at a time when monuments to the Confederacy were being promoted throughout the South not as a tool to remember history, but as a means to glorify Jim Crow society's restrictions on black people.
The department of English and comparative literature issued a statement, for example, that said in part, "As researchers and teachers, we encourage our community to continue to learn about the historical context and narratives that surround Silent Sam and other similar memorials and monuments of the early 20th century. These are far from simple remembrances of fallen soldiers. Erected in 1913, the Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University, as it is formally entitled, is inscribed to those Confederate soldiers 'whose lives taught the lesson … that duty is the sublimest word in the English language.' That duty, as Julian Carr described it during his speech at the statue’s unveiling, was to 'save the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South … and today, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern states.' Carr dwelled proudly on his own 'pleasing duty' of brutally horsewhipping an African American woman, whom he referred to as a 'negro wench,' for allegedly 'publicly insulting' a white 'Southern lady.' His intent for the monument was thus explicitly one of racial oppression and white supremacy."
Few statements attracted the attention, however, as did one from black former athletes at Chapel Hill. Their statement noted that they understood how hard it would be for current athletes to speak out. So the former athletes said, "We agree with the 500-plus member Black Student Movement statement that black students and faculty are often used by the university as 'accessories.' We were a part of that sacrifice and branding. We helped to tell the story that Carolina is the 'University of the People.' We love UNC but now also feel a disconnect from an institution that was unwilling to listen to students and faculty who asked for Silent Sam to be permanently removed from campus. The recommendation is embarrassing to us who proudly promote UNC."
Critics of the idea of returning Silent Sam to campus generally said that they were pleased with the outcome of Friday's meeting. But it is unclear whether they will be pleased with the eventual plan the board develops.
But some politicians and at least one Board of Governors member have called for the statue to go back to its place on campus, outside.
The Board of Governors discussion of the issue took place in closed session. After that, a few board members cited the cost of the proposed history center, and safety issues as part of their reason to reject the proposal. But it remains unclear what the board will do.
Folt, the Chapel Hill chancellor, issued a statement Friday in which she said she was pleased to see the university have more time to consider all of the issues involved. She reiterated her view that an off-campus location for Silent Sam would be best.
In some of her past statements on Silent Sam, Folt's expressions of sympathy for fans of the statue have angered some on campus who viewed her as taking a "both sides have equal arguments" approach. In an August statement, for example, she noted the frustrations and anger of those who want the statue off campus, but also added that "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. 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."
Friday's statement stressed the pain caused by the statue. Of Silent Sam, she said, "Put here more than one hundred years ago, our community is carrying the burden of an artifact, given to us by a previous generation in a different time. The burden of the statue has been and still is disproportionately shouldered by African Americans. No university today would even consider placing such an artifact on their campuses."
On Sunday, a small group of protesters appeared at the site where Silent Sam stood until being toppled. The group, Heirs to the Confederacy, describes its role this way on Facebook: "Heirs to the Confederacy is devoted to the preservation of our Southern heritage and traditions, Confederate monuments and memorials, the honor of our flags, and the Cause of the Confederate States of America; freedom, the preservation of the Constitution, and the memory of the Old Republic, America as it was meant to be."