Students, faculty and others told UNC-Chapel Hill leaders on Wednesday that it’s time for Silent Sam to disappear from his perch at the university’s front door.
At a public comment session held by the university’s Board of Trustees on Wednesday morning, more than two dozen came forward – most with an impassioned plea to “do right” and remove the Confederate statue. A ballroom at the Carolina Inn was packed for the event.
While a few speakers wanted the statue to remain on campus in the interest of preserving history and honoring Civil War dead, others said Silent Sam was offensive and alienating, especially for African-American students. Some derided the university police for sending an undercover officer to pose as a protester to spy on students. Several invoked the university’s catch phrase for its $4.25 billion fundraising campaign – “For All Kind” – to suggest that the school can’t be for all as long as Silent Sam stands.
The comments were emotional at times. A local woman named Heather Redding unfurled a Confederate flag to the board and compared its presence to the statue.
“This is a hate symbol,” she said, holding up the flag, and adding: “This is what Silent Sam is like on campus. It’s a distraction and it’s uncomfortable.”
She told the board that it must take a side in the controversial issue.
“In today’s climate, where white supremacists don suits rather than hoods and march proudly in our communities, you cannot afford to yield to political or financial pressure in your role at this institution,” Redding continued. “The stakes are too high.”
Buck Goldstein, a professor in economics, said the statue is a symbol that is inappropriate for public display on any university campus.
“The university community will stand with you,” Goldstein said. “A budget shortfall or a politically motivated criticism will soon be forgotten. The courage to stand by our most fundamental values will be remembered forever. ... Your hands are tied only if you tie them.”
Alumnus James Ward said it should remain because it represents a remembrance of “our blood kin who died in a devastating war.”
“This university should not succumb to the demands of any group that demonstrates the most and shouts the loudest,” Ward said. “Once the tearing down starts, where does it end?”
Alumna and Chapel Hill resident Eunice Brock agreed. She applauded students’ stand against racism but added, “I am against the removal of Silent Sam, because I do not believe it expresses racism.”
Mya Roberson, a graduate student in public health, described avoiding McCorkle Place on campus because she doesn’t want to confront the statue’s imagery.
Roberson said she had brought in $150,000 in external fellowship money to support her studies at UNC.
“But I am constantly trying to prove my worth to this university,” said Roberson, who is African-American. “I am reminded every day that this institution was built by people like me and not for people like me. If it was up to the people that Silent Sam represents, I would be counted as three-fifths of a human and would be shackled.”
She drew loud applause when she said: “You may be tempted to call me a coddled millennial, and that is fine. But I am human, I am black, and I am fed up.”
Chancellor Carol Folt said Wednesday’s hearing was important for the campus community and for the board.
“I wanted them to hear the caring, the humane, the thoughtful, the terrified, the angry – the full scope of voices that we hear every day,” Folt said, adding, “We said we were going to listen and truly, that is the intention, is to truly hear.”
Folt and the board made no promises about what would happen to Silent Sam. She has said she thinks it is best to relocate the statue, but can’t do it because of a 2015 law that prevents the alteration of monuments on state property.
In recent weeks, Folt has said the university will follow the law. Gov. Roy Cooper said in August that the university could move the statue because of safety concerns, but UNC lawyers contend that provision in the law only relates to monuments that pose a physical hazard.
Cooper has asked the state historical commission to consider moving other Confederate monuments on capital grounds, but did not include the UNC monument in his petition after the university system office declined.
In August, a majority of the Republican-dominated UNC system governing board has expressed opposition to administrators discussing the issue with Cooper, a Democrat.