UNC leaders hope new signs will put Silent Sam's history in context

Demonstrators loudly urge Chancellor Folt to take down Silent Sam during protest in September

Students and activists gathered outside South Building on UNC’s Campus in September with drums, pots and pans, and noise makers to disrupt business as usual and demand that Chancellor Folt take down Silent Sam.
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Students and activists gathered outside South Building on UNC’s Campus in September with drums, pots and pans, and noise makers to disrupt business as usual and demand that Chancellor Folt take down Silent Sam.

Silent Sam may finally speak, with a full history lesson for passersby at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Embedded history markers and Bluetooth beacons connected to digital content could lead UNC-Chapel Hill visitors through McCorkle Place, the quadrangle off Franklin Street, an area that could become known as the "birthplace of American public higher education."

A plan to provide historical context to the site will include signs about the origins of the controversial Confederate monument known as Silent Sam, which has been the target of protesters and a source of angst for students, faculty and university leaders.

Work is proceeding to curate the university's history after months of research by an internal task force that included historian and professor Jim Leloudis. On Wednesday, Leloudis presented designs to the Board of Trustees.

The proposal calls for gateway signs at either end of the quadrangle, plus interpretive signs at two current locations — Silent Sam and the Unsung Founders Memorial, which honors slaves' contributions to the university. A third marker, a new feature, will tell the history of Native Americans on the land.

As part of the work, the Unsung Founders Memorial will be refurbished because of damage from rain and erosion that has caused it to sink into the ground. The black granite table-like sculpture is supported by figurines that represent slave and free labor that built the university's original buildings. It will be re-installed on a hard surface surrounded by circular walls and a walkway that connects to the sidewalk.

The Unsung Founders Memorial by artist Do-Ho Suh was installed on May 11, 2005, near Silent Sam on McCorkle Place. Three hundred figurines based on three larger bronze sculptures support the memorial, which is ringed by five stone seats. The inscription says, "The Class of 2002 honors the University's unsung founders - the people of color bond and free - who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today." Mark Schultz

The idea behind the contextual effort is to present the history of the university, good and bad. Universities around the country have changed the names of buildings, constructed new exhibits or removed statues altogether in an effort to confront a history of racism and racial inequality. Last year, Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee that had been vandalized. The University of Texas removed three Confederate statues in the middle of the night before classes began last August.

But Silent Sam still stands, despite protests by students and requests from faculty leaders, student government and academic departments to relocate it to a museum or elsewhere. UNC Chancellor Carol Folt has said she thinks the statue is a distraction that is detrimental to the university, but university lawyers believe they are prevented from moving the statue by a 2015 state law that protects historic monuments.

Tempers flare and emotions run high in August during a rally and march calling for the removal of the Confederate statue known as 'Silent Sam' on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.

The N.C. Historical Commission is considering a request from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to move Confederate statues from state capitol grounds to a Civil War battlefield in Johnston County. The commission has not yet entertained the issue of moving Silent Sam, nor has the university requested it, though several individuals made a formal petition to the panel.

So for now, at least, the proposal to provide more context around UNC's Confederate monument is moving ahead. Any marker is likely to describe the statue being put up in 1913, decades after the Civil War. Though it honors UNC alumni who fought in the war, historians have said there were clear racist motivations, citing the speech at the dedication, in which Julian Carr described horse whipping "a Negro wench" and said the Confederate soldier "saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South."

The Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus known as 'Silent Sam' was a point of friction and protest long before becoming part of the national conversation. Here's a look at the monument's history.

On Wednesday, there was no mention of any future removal of the statue.

Trustee Jeff Brown said he hoped the story of McCorkle Place would include other parts of history besides the Confederate, slave and Native American elements.

"It seems to me there's an opportunity to broaden McCorkle Place's recognitions," he said, adding, "To me, that's where I think a lot of the action can be going forward, to celebrate the university's role in public education."

Leloudis said that broader plan has always been the long-term vision. He said he could see markers at Hill Hall, the first library at the university, and in front of Graham Memorial, which was built to honor Edward Kidder Graham.

"He was such an important figure in the history of the university, who really put the ideal of public service and civic engagement at the heart of this university's mission," Leloudis said. "That has been our ultimate goal all along."

Trustee Chuck Duckett said the university's history will be told in a true way, "and there are some tough parts in there, which we're going to address."

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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