Remove Silent Sam
As alumni of University of North Carolina, we support Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger’s call for the chancellor to formally petition to have Silent Sam removed (Aug. 18). Like so many similar confederate statues, Silent Sam was erected during the height of the Jim Crow era – when thousands of African Americans were murdered – with the explicit purpose of commemorating an economic system based on slavery. While this aspect of Southern history should never be forgotten, it is not something the university or town ought to celebrate in 2017.
Further, not only has Silent Sam been repeatedly vandalized, other Confederate statues in North Carolina have been defaced, including a statue of Robert E. Lee at Duke Chapel, two statues in Wilmington, and the Confederate soldier monument pulled down outside the Durham County Courthouse. It is only a matter of time before Silent Sam is damaged beyond repair. If we truly want to preserve Southern history, the best place for Silent Sam is in a museum. Perhaps a panel of elected officials, local businesspeople, UNC faculty, and the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History could commission a fitting monument in its place.
Cathy Cowan Becker, B.A. 1987
Cindy Cowan Bennett, B.A. 1986, M.D. 1993
P. Scott Bennett, B.S. 1989, M.D. 1993
Christina C. Benson, B.A. 1990, J.D./M.B.A. 1997
Michael Cowan, B.A. 1996
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Keep Silent Sam
“Silent Sam” has been the subject of controversy for years. It is seen by some as a symbol of historical remembrance, a part of UNC’s campus history. As I understand it, It was erected to honor the 300 UNC alumni who lost their lives, fighting on both sides of that tragic conflict, Union and Confederate. This does not represent generals on their horses who continued to live lives after the war; rather, it memorializes ordinary soldiers, many of whom were conscripted into the Confederate Army, who did not always support slavery. I read “Petition urges UNC to remove Silent Sam Confederate statue” (Aug. 17). I find it hard to understand why the daughter of one writer was so “horrified.” Surely, if she had taken the time to learn the history of the statue, she might have gained a more nuanced understanding of why it has stood on the campus for so many years.
Regarding “NC Gov. Roy Cooper wants Confederate statues removed from state grounds” (Aug. 15): Governor Cooper has proposed that the state remove the large monument on the Capitol Grounds that is inscribed “To Our Confederate Dead.” A more appropriate solution would be to sandblast the word “Confederate” from the monument, and replace it with the words “Civil War.”
A monument “To Our Civil War Dead” would memorialize the North Carolinians who died while fighting for the Confederacy – often against their will, because they were drafted – and also the many North Carolinians who died while fighting for the Union. Eight Union regiments – four black and four white – were raised in North Carolina. Many North Carolinians also fought in the Union Navy, or in Union units raised in other states. Thousands of civilians also died in the horrors of this war.
The Civil War was the most traumatic and meaningful event in North Carolina’s history. This was a deeply divided state, and every North Carolinian experienced difficulties and upheavals we can hardly conceive of. Yet the Civil War was the event that began America’s long journey to becoming a land of justice and opportunity for all. It should not be forgotten.
Give statues context
Some feel that Confederate memorials do not directly glorify slavery and racism. But they are, at the very least, permanently contaminated by the symbolism of hate. As such, continued reverence of these monuments is folly. Whatever positive meaning they still may carry (if any exists) should today be represented better in ways more egalitarian and less inflammatory. The passionate destruction of these symbols has been rationalized as an outlet for (justifiable) frustration with present-day bigotry and its tacit acceptance by our leaders.
But, with each deposed and disfigured artifact, humanity loses another reference to the paths it has trod – for good or ill. And it is difficult to denounce hatred of any form when displaying behavior that so closely resembles it. Move these monuments from their stations of prominence, and place them in modest, humble surroundings. Alongside their original inscriptions, give context to explain the ignominy surrounding their making – and further affirm that today we strive for a better world in which there will never again be such a need. These monuments are memorials to soldiers, but also to a great and still-wounded part of our nation’s collective conscience. They should be preserved for remembrance and for caution, but not for glory.
As some act to remove statues commemorating the Confederacy, may we pause to reflect on which memorials should be removed. There are statues to influential leaders and others to simple soldiers. The statue in Durham honored those soldiers who fought for the South. Desecrating that statue is much like disrespecting and defacing memorials to the soldiers of Vietnam, most of whom are still alive.
Many who fought these wars were conscripts or merely enlisted to because of the pressures of the draft, not because of a particular ideology or hatred for others. Most were boys who were not privileged to debate or influence political outcomes. They were called and they fought for each other, for groups no larger than a dozen or so. For those in the infantry their war was one of five feet to 100 meters. My plea is that people remember that to disrespect any enlisted soldier is to disrespect all soldiers, even the ones who are protecting us today.
As we make decisions about the future of Confederate monuments, it helps me to recall that, “It’s a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” My family had a number of relatives die fighting for the Confederacy. Most of them lived hard lives, with little education or security. But they were undeniably better off than the slaves whose continued servitude they fought for. America is long overdue in addressing its shameful racial past more candidly and forcefully. It has also just endured an election where the traditional fault lines of our politics and economy were on ugly display.
Unsurprisingly, that ugliness has grown in its wake, with our President himself fanning the flames. To create a more equitable society, people must focus more directly on those areas where race, gender and class come together, in candid private conversations, and in public spaces where policies are devised to overcome persistent injustices and inequality. There is no other adequate way forward. Good people can disagree on what those policies should be, but can no longer pretend that we can keep putting off these conversations and debates. I’d like to think my dead Confederate relatives would participate with an open mind and heart today.
Work for unity
Some thoughts as the furious debate over Confederate memorials comes to our community. First, once a statue is erected it is not mandatory that it stay up forever. When American forces conquered Baghdad they made quite a big deal about pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein, and I don’t know many who regretted the fall of statues of Lenin after the end of the Soviet Union.
But up until now the most divisive period of my life was the Vietnam War, when some Americans answered what they saw as their obligation to fight for our nation and other Americans were certain that to support the war was to go against everything America truly stood for. We built a memorial to the men and women who sacrificed in that conflict; for me, it doesn’t matter if they actually believed the arguments that led us there or if they were moved by concepts of duty and community that had nothing to do with Cold War politics. For many Southerners those memorials honor young men who marched away and never came back.
Yet how can we expect African-Americans to accept statues that honor those who fought, at the end of the day, for the perpetuation of the evil system of slavery? Nor should it be forgotten that after the Civil War came a century of denying the rights of black Americans. At the very least there should be a way to “contextualize” these sad chapters of history. There are hundreds of heroes who fought against racism; why not put a statue of one of them next to every memorial to the Confederate past?
Fifty-four years ago a man spoke of the day when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” We still need to find a path to that dream.
Joe Swain Jr.