By the time you read this, Silent Sam may be flat on its back or worse, or just a pile of rubble, a casualty in what is shaping up as another Civil War of words and anger and, yes, deadly violence.
In the long ago, as a student at UNC, I walked past Silent Sam almost every day, going to and from Franklin Street, the college town’s main artery.
Neither I nor anyone I knew paid much, if any, attention to the statue. I knew nothing of its history, other than that it is a memorial to the Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.
During my time at Carolina, it was almost an all-male campus, with 7,000 male and only 800 female students.
Many among us were World War II veterans. Outside the classroom, our minds were primarily on procuring a date with one of those scarce co-eds, participating in occasional panty raids, and bragging about Carolina’s powerhouse football teams while imbibing beer at the Rathskeller.
Silent Sam was not an issue within our comfortable cocoon of white supremacy.
In fact, the statue was said to be so named because of the longtime sexist campus legend that Sam fired his musket only when a virginal coed walked by.
The monument certainly is no source of levity today. It has become a burning issue on and beyond the campus.
My father was 4 years old when his dad, my grandfather James Snow, died in a Confederate uniform on Christmas Eve, 1864. A few of my kin have visited his grave at a Virginia military cemetery. I have not.
As a boy, I once came across a trunk containing mementos of his service. They have long since disappeared. Nobody in the family has doted on that aspect of our heritage.
In fact, my mom’s grandfather was a flat-out draft dodger, living in the woods much of the time, occasionally sneaking home late at night for visits with his family.
On one of those occasions, members of the Home Guard, the equivalent of today’s draft board, came knocking at the door one night. Grandfather dived under the bed. Unfortunately, he had left his shoes sitting in view.
Rousted out, he told his captors that he actually had come home to give himself up and fight for “the cause.” He asked and received permission to go into the kitchen and shave before he was taken away.
In a little while, his wife returned and announced, “You gentleman might as well leave. My husband is probably a mile or two away from here by now.”
When I came to Raleigh in 1957, “White” and “Colored” water fountains still stood on the courthouse lawn. Schools were still segregated. Racism, while more subtle, was still rampant.
I was having coffee one morning at the drugstore around the corner from the newspaper when a black woman came in and timidly asked the girl behind the counter, “Do you serve colored?”
The girl’s response of “Colored what?” was an encouraging sign of progress.
Should Silent Sam remain in place on the public path as a physical reminder of our nation’s greatest atrocity?
Or should it be relocated, perhaps to a campus museum, out of deference to those who regard its public presence as an endorsement of racism? Relocation also would protect the statue from nighttime marauders bent on mischief or mayhem.
But out of sight must never mean out of mind for the American conscience as we move ever forward in removing the lingering ugliness and shame of racial discrimination.