A look back at the history of UNC’s Silent Sam
Legislative bills filed by Democrats on Tuesday would authorize UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt to relocate the Silent Sam Confederate monument.
Companion bills filed in the state House and Senate would provide for the statue to be moved to a permanent indoor location "due to recent acts of vandalism to the monument that threaten the preservation and integrity of the monument." The language requires the chancellor to identify a new site for the statue and move it by April 1, 2020.
The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Valerie Foushee, a Hillsborough Democrat, and Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat. The House version was sponsored by Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat, and Rep. Graig Meyer, a Hillsborough Democrat.
The statue, depicting a Confederate soldier, has been vandalized repeatedly over the years, prompting UNC police to install security cameras at McCorkle Place on campus. The most recent act occurred in April, when a graduate student doused it in red ink and blood in a protest that she contended added the appropriate context to the statue. Last August, a video captured a man climbing the statue and pounding its face with hammer.
Folt has said she thinks the statue should be relocated, but university lawyers have concluded the statue can't be moved because of a 2015 state law that protects historic monuments. The law prohibits the alteration of monuments on state property in most cases, but provides for temporary or permanent relocation when "appropriate measures are required by the State or a political subdivision of the State to preserve the object."
The state historical commission is considering a request from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who petitioned the body to move three Confederate statues on state Capitol grounds to a battlefield site in Johnston County.
Though neither Cooper nor the university has asked the commission to move Silent Sam, several private citizens have made the request.
The bills would result in the statue being moved and would provide $10,000 in state funds to identify and develop a secure, indoor site for public viewing on the UNC campus. That, the bill said, "will enable the University to protect the monument from further defacement and damage to ensure that the monument will be preserved for future generations to gain an understanding of the legacy of slavery and the history of the Civil War."
Further, the bill says, the "the open display by government entities of any monument that directly or indirectly memorializes racial inequality in a democracy that is based on equality under the law undermines that concept."
The bill states that the university should use nonstate funds to actually move the statue and for any associated costs.
Previous arguments by university officials have focused on public safety as a reason to move Silent Sam.
Last August, Folt and UNC President Margaret Spellings signed a letter to Cooper, saying they were worried about a planned protest that could have been dangerous for students. Cooper responded that the university could take down the monument immediately, citing an exemption in the law about safety.
University lawyers say that exemption really only refers to situations where the monument itself is a physical hazard to the public.
So far, UNC leaders have made no effort to move the statue, and instead plan to add signs that better explain the context and history of the monument. The situation has become politically tricky. Last year, a majority of the UNC Board of Governors expressed displeasure with the idea of moving Silent Sam, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger wrote to Cooper, calling his request to the historical commission "a fool's errand" that could trigger a lawsuit.
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger made the preservation case in a letter last year to Folt.
"The possibility of a breach of the peace is high, and with it the likelihood that Silent Sam could suffer substantial damage," Hemminger wrote in an attempt to persuade Folt to petition the historical commission.