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As Silent Sam deadline looms, UNC officials quietly debate a difficult decision

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.

The choices ahead are not simple for UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and the university’s Board of Trustees — wherever they suggest putting Silent Sam, some people will be unhappy.

The next two or three weeks, a plan will take shape for the “disposition and preservation” of the 105-year-old Confederate statue that was yanked down by protesters Aug. 20. The original deadline set by the UNC system’s Board of Governors for a recommendation from Folt and the trustees was to be Nov. 15.

The new deadline will be Dec. 3, university officials say, which will give the UNC system Board of Governors time to study the proposal before its next meeting on Dec. 14. Campus officials asked for more time to do research on the options they’re considering.

The decision has turned out to be more complex than expected earlier, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said Friday, even though the delay will keep people on pins and needles.

“It’s never our intent nor desire to create angst or emotions,” he said, “ but we do want to make sure we get it right.”

Smith said he wanted to give the campus a little more time to come up with “a thorough, detailed, well-thought-out proposal,” adding, “I think they’re working hard, I think they’ve had to have a lot of discussion.”

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Several trustees said the process has required significant analysis of the logistics, cost and security of various options for the statue.

Haywood Cochrane, chairman of the trustees, said the board wants to hear analysis from safety and security professionals.

“There’s nothing more important than keeping our campus safe,” Cochrane said, adding that cost has to be factored in. “It’s a big number wherever it goes.”

The university spent $390,000 on Silent Sam security in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Supporters of Silent Sam arrived at the monument's base on Saturday, September 8, 2018. They were met with a counter-protest organized as a potluck and canned food drive. Supporters were escorted out, and several arrests were made afterwards.

The Board of Trustees is due to meet Wednesday and Thursday of this week, but Silent Sam is not listed on the agenda. So far, talks among trustee members and Folt have occurred behind the scenes.

Folt said in late August that the statue should not be returned to its prime former location at a main entrance to campus, on McCorkle Place off Franklin Street.

Last month, the UNC Faculty Council voted on a resolution that the statue, along with its now-empty pedestal, should permanently be removed from the UNC campus. That echoed a September statement by African-American faculty, who said: “To reinstall the Confederate monument to any location on UNC’s campus is to herald for the nation and for the world that UNC is not a welcoming place for Black people.”

A recent survey of faculty and staff at the College of Arts & Sciences showed that 37 percent want to relocate the statue off campus to a museum or historic site and 26 percent said Silent Sam should be displayed somewhere else on campus. Another 23 percent want to take the statue out of public view with no commitment to future display, while 7 percent want to permanently withdraw it from public view. Only 3 percent said the statue should be restored to its former location.

The survey, conducted in September by College of Arts & Sciences Dean Kevin Guskiewicz was sent to 2,060 faculty and staff; 19 percent responded.

The most popular response — to install Silent Sam in a museum — included suggestions about which sites would be most fitting. Among them: the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte; the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh; the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and Bennett Place in Durham, the site of the troop surrender of the Civil War.

Such a move would likely require a change in the 2015 state law that prevents the relocation or alteration of historic objects of remembrance. It’s unclear whether lawmakers would go along with that.

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.

According to an Oct. 17 letter to Folt, Guskiewicz suggested that Bennett Place, a significant Civil War landmark, was the most appropriate destination for Silent Sam. The letter and survey results were posted online.

“While we recognize that this issue is complicated, the monument has become a distraction that stands to jeopardize our continued status as one of the nation’s premier public research universities,” Guskiewicz wrote.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559; @janestancill

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Protesters clashed at UNC-Chapel Hill five days after the toppling of the Silent Sam Confederate statue. Police arrested seven people by early afternoon on Saturday, August 25, 2018.

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