It is very unfortunate that the Carolina monument to honor the Confederate war effort was defaced recently. Rather than a secret strike in the night, it would have been much better to have protested openly, in a way that was not destructive or violent, as a group of thoughtful student activists and community leaders have done repeatedly over the past few years. Protesters should be willing to own their actions and proclaim their message.
Similarly, I believe that it is evasive, dishonest, and crude to refer to the UNC Confederate Monument as Silent Sam. If my understanding of one version of campus lore is correct, the name Silent Sam is a reference to an incredibly unfunny and immature joke about the sexual availability of women students. As the story goes, Sam will fire his rifle whenever a virgin walks by. That joke may have seemed hilarious to some Carolina men around the time that women first invaded their campus ... but that was a long time ago.
Cute names and unfunny jokes are entirely inappropriate for that monument. A community of learning should insist on calling it by its right name and acknowledging that its message is unambiguous. It is a tribute to the military effort to dismember the United States and preserve the right of some Southerners to hold other Southerners in slavery. We have chosen to mark the perimeter of a major research university with a statute of a man holding a rifle, and a plaque that portrays a book falling to the ground. The inscription honors those students who answered the call of their country. We should be clear that the country being honored is not the United States.
If the people who protest the monument ought to be willing to own their actions and openly proclaim their message, so should the people who maintain its commanding presence facing Franklin Street. We should be willing to invite a wide, honest and open discussion by prominently displaying the image of the Carolina Confederate Monument on the university’s letterhead and at the top of its website. We ought to be willing to emblazon it on the helmets of the football team and on the jerseys of the basketball team. We should make University Day a teachable moment by symbolically renewing and repeating the pledge to honor the call of our country, not the United States. But if we are at all uncomfortable with the idea of projecting that image and proclaiming that message to the outside world, we might consider why we are comfortable projecting and proclaiming it to the students, staff, and faculty who see that monument every day.
The university takes justifiable pride in its Center for the Study of the American South, the Southern Historical Collection, the Southern Studies Program and in work of many distinguished writers, musicians, scholars and programs that are devoted to the study of the South. It is a great mistake to equate honoring the Confederate war effort with embracing the history and culture of the South.
There are many pressing and urgent issues facing UNC. Statues and symbolic language may not be at the top of the list, but that does not mean that they are unimportant. Soon after the tragedy at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Republican State Rep. Doug Brannon took the position that 150 years after Emancipation, public officials should not still be rallying around the Confederate flag, and longing for the lost cause. Brannon’s position was based on principle, and at the time, he thought that it might cost him his seat in the legislature. I have no doubt that there are members of the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees who feel as strongly about this issue as Rep. Brannon did. Someday, inspiring, inclusive monuments to the ideals of Emancipation will become as ubiquitous in the South as monuments to the Confederate war effort are today. Great public universities, and great public officials, should lead in that effort.
Reginald F. Hildebrand is an associate professor of African American Studies and History at UNC.