Chapel Hill, NC
A Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) was toppled by a group of protesters, the culmination of decades-long tension surrounding the statue. University officials condemned the act as dangerous vandalism, and three people were arrested on misdemeanor charges. Seven more were arrested during clashes on the issue days later. The events led to topical dialogue at nearby Duke University, where a prominent donor is affiliated with the UNC statue.
“Silent Sam” is the nickname for the toppled statue of a Confederate soldier at UNC. The name derived from his lack of ammunition and hence, his inability to fire his gun.
Originally commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor the nearly 300 UNC students who died fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the statue was approved by the university in 1908 and was unveiled in 1913, according to a history compiled by TIME magazine.
Over the past several decades, “Silent Sam” has been a source of tension and protest at UNC. Activity began in the 1960s, when student protesters covered the statue in red paint following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to TIME. The statue remained a gathering place for speeches and demonstrations by black student groups for decades.
In May 2018, UNC student Maya Little vandalized the statue with paint and her own blood to provide the “proper historical context” for it, she said. Little was also a leader in the August protest that toppled “Silent Sam.”
Julian Carr was a prominent industrialist and white supremacist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a pivotal donor at Duke University in nearby Durham, North Carolina. Among other things, Carr endorsed the Ku Klux Klan’s ideology and tactics and argued against suffrage for the black community, according to the Duke Chronicle, Duke University’s independent student newspaper.
Carr donated the land on which Duke’s East Campus would eventually sit. His contributions led to the building that houses the university’s history department being named for him.
At the dedication of “Silent Sam,” Carr, an alumnus of UNC, said the statue was a testament to the “welfare of the Anglo Saxon race,” according to TIME. In that speech, Carr also described an incident in which he had, just 100 yards away from where the statue was erected, heavily whipped a black woman for “publicly insulting” a white woman.
Calls for the removal of “Silent Sam” escalated in tandem with the recent debate over Confederate monuments across the country. In particular, protests intensified after the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was sparked by the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a prominent location.
In September 2017, 22 faculty members sent an open letter to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, calling for the removal of “Silent Sam,” according to the alternative newspaper IndyWeek. The letter came amid student protests, including a sit-in around the statue.
Last year, according to The New York Times. the university said that “removing the Confederate monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus,” but that a North Carolina law made it impossible to do so on just the university’s authority, The 2015 law in question mandates that state-owned monuments, memorials, and artworks — including the “Silent Sam” statue at UNC, a public university — could not be “removed, relocated or altered” without the permission of a state historical commission.
Yet, the university also neglected calls, including one from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, to use a legal loophole that would allow UNC to remove the statue because it allegedly presented “a threat to public safety.” Furthermore, the university chose not to pursue actively the legal process for removing it, according to the Times. The state historical commission said it had not received requests for action from the university or its governors.
The university’s continued inaction reached a tipping point when, on August 20, 2018, a group of some 250 protesters toppled “Silent Sam.” They draped the statue with several banners before taking it down, including one that read “Unnamed Black women beaten by Julian Carr,” according to TIME. Protesters tried to bury the severed head of “Silent Sam,” but university officials hauled away the statue’s remains before they could do that, according to the Times, and stored them in an undisclosed location.
Reactions to the downfall of “Silent Sam” were split. Onlookers to the event described it as historical, and characterized the atmosphere as celebratory and liberating. University officials, conversely, contended that the toppling of “Silent Sam” was a dangerous act of vandalism, but sought to reconcile that with the tensions the statue had ignited on campus.
In an open letter to the UNC community on August 21, chancellor Carol Folt acknowledged the statue had been “divisive for years” and that “its presence has been a source of frustration for many people.” Still, she noted that taking down the statue in such a manner was “unlawful and dangerous,” and that authorities were investigating the incident.
The president of the North Carolina statewide university system, along with the chair of its board of governors, echoed these sentiments, calling the events “unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible,” according to the Times.
Days after the statue was pulled down, clashes broke out on UNC’s campus between protesters with Confederate flags and counter-protesters condemning white supremacy. Seven people were arrested, of whom several were charged with assault, according to The Washington Post.
Within weeks, the university reported that it was looking into a less prominent “alternative location” on campus where the statue could stand, according to CNN. One member of UNC’s Board of Governors tweeted that “Silent Sam” would be reinstalled within three months, “as required by state law.”
Three face charges in felling “Silent Sam”
On August 24, police filed charges against three individuals accused of toppling “Silent Sam,” according to The New York Times. All three individuals, who were said to have no affiliation with UNC, faced misdemeanor charges of rioting and defacing a public monument, the Times said.
Duke history professors call to rename Carr Building
After “Silent Sam” was toppled, history professors at Duke renewed calls for the Carr Building to be renamed, citing Carr’s white supremacist past — including his words at the dedication of the statue at UNC. Professors had expressed concerns over the name in the past, which were intensified after the violent riots in Charlottesville, Virginia.
According to the Times, Duke’s history faculty voted unanimously at the end of the spring semester of 2018 to rename the Carr Building for Raymond Gavins, the first African American history professor at Duke, who taught there for nearly five decades. The faculty filed this request with the university at the start of the fall 2018 semester, according to the Duke Chronicle.
A Duke spokesman said the request for the name change was under review, according to the Times.
Decision to resurrect “Silent Sam” leads to protests
On Dec. 3, the university’s Board of Trustees announced plans to build an educational center to house “Silent Sam” in a less prominent part of campus. The center would cost $5.3 million to construct and $800,000 annually to maintain, according to the Washington Post. Though the university says it would prefer to remove “Silent Sam” from campus altogether and place him in a museum, the North Carolina law prevents it from doing so.
The decision to preserve “Silent Sam” on campus, and in particular the cost to do so, sparked objections almost immediately at UNC. By the night of Dec. 3, hundreds protested in the streets of Chapel Hill.
In the subsequent days, instructors at UNC announced they would withhold grades until the Board of Trustees withdrew its plan to relocate “Silent Sam.” Some 80 instructors — largely teaching assistants — signed a petition to withhold grades, according to the Daily Tar Heel.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded September 24, 2018
Updated December 9, 2018