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UNC chancellor wants to find a new home for Silent Sam Confederate statue — on campus

The rise and fall of Silent Sam

Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.
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Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.

After nearly two weeks of sometimes heated debate about the future of Silent Sam, Chancellor Carol Folt sent a message to the UNC community Friday asking for help in finding a new campus home for the toppled Confederate statue.

“Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university,” Folt wrote. “We want to provide opportunities for our students and the broader community to reflect upon and learn from that history. Wide consultation, and lots of listening on campus and beyond, are necessary if we are to move toward peace and healing.”

This week, the UNC Board of Governors called for Chapel Hill campus leaders to present a plan for what to do with the statue to the UNC system Board of Governors by Nov. 15.

In a conference call with reporters, Folt would not reveal where the monument could end up. She said the UNC system board gave her and the trustees “a clear path to identify a safe, legal and alternative location for the monument, and that’s the first time we’ve had that.”

But Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said Friday’s statement from Folt was premature.

“I was very disappointed in Chancellor Folt’s hasty release with such strong statements on her opinion on the relocation,” Smith said during a phone interview. “The Board of Governors worked very hard to ensure we follow proper governance and oversight and allowed UNC-Chapel Hill to have plenty of time to develop a meaningful, thoughtful plan. Chancellor Folt has subjugated that with such a quick release with her strong views and opinions.”

Smith said he hoped the trustees would step in with Folt “and put it back into a good process that seeks different views and opinions, that is a measured, thoughtful, meaningful process, which is what the Board of Governors had requested.”

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The announcement Friday, after another large protest at the former Silent Sam site Thursday night, seemed to differ from previous comments from Folt earlier in the week.

On Tuesday, after the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors held special sessions to discuss the issue, Folt said all options would be considered for the future of the bronze statue, including the possibility of placing it back on the now-empty pedestal at McCorkle Place, a major gateway to campus.

On Friday, Folt said, “We do believe there are options, many of them, to doing this without having it sit in its current location.”

Pro-Silent Sam demonstrators were escorted by UNC police on Thursday to a barricaded area near the base of where Silent Sam stood for a vigil. Protesters held a dance party and the two groups taunted each other. Police used pepper spray throughout.

Her comments Friday came after days of mounting pressure from faculty and other groups that want to see the statue somewhere else.

Several academic departments have weighed in with their own statements calling for the monument to be moved, as well as 41 department chairs in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. They wrote to Folt, saying they “strongly oppose” the return of Silent Sam to its original spot.

A majority of the Faculty Executive Committee supported the chairs’ letter. And more than 300 individual faculty signed on to a letter calling for Folt’s administration to “show leadership, not bureaucratic obfuscation.”

Community members began to take a stand, too. On Thursday, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership issued a joint statement calling for the permanent relocation of the monument.

“This prominently placed statue threatens our community’s safety, is bad for business, and undermines our well-earned reputation that successfully attracts business, talent, and investment in our community,” the statement said.

A crowd of protesters pull down the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina Monday night, Aug. 20, 2018.

On Friday, faith leaders in Chapel Hill weighed in, too. In a letter to the Chapel Hill and university community signed by 37 interfaith clergy, the group said there was disagreement about the action that brought down the statue. But, the clergy letter added, “we all hold that returning Silent Sam to its previous location furthers the goal of those who originally put it there: venerating white supremacy, and denigrating people of color.”

When asked by a reporter Friday whether McCorkle Place had been ruled out as the future location, Folt did not directly answer.

“I think it means exactly what I said,” she replied. “I said I’d have a place on campus, and I think it has a place that we can effectively teach the history. I think if you’re trying to get me to say where it’s going to be, I can’t say it.”

She said she is entering into a democratic process to determine the way forward and will listen to all sides.

Folt said it is her preference to relocate Silent Sam to a safer position. “What I’m explaining to you now is the true process,” she said, adding that her plan would be presented to the Board of Governors.

“Campus leaders, faculty, students, and staff need to focus now on what we can do, and get it done. Let’s bring the passion we share for teaching, research, justice, and our collaborative culture to take advantage of this opportunity for a resolution, 105 years in the making,” Folt wrote in her message to the campus.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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