Education

‘Proud to be a student here.’ Without Silent Sam, will UNC have a fresh start?

Reaction follows toppling of Silent Sam on UNC campus

UNC's Silent Sam was toppled Monday night, August 20, 2018 but people stop by throughout the day after to take selifies and photos at the site.
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UNC's Silent Sam was toppled Monday night, August 20, 2018 but people stop by throughout the day after to take selifies and photos at the site.

On the day after Silent Sam fell, there was still a small hole in the dirt where his head collided with the earth, and his empty pedestal attracted a steady stream of people who came to see a new kind of history.

The statue, a monument built to honor the UNC-Chapel Hill students who’d died and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, had stood atop that pedestal for 105 years. Now, on Tuesday, the pedestal stood by itself, adorned in the late afternoon with posters with names written on them in bold black letters.

The names on those posters recognized some African-American students who’d broken color barriers at UNC: the first black student to enroll in the university’s medical school and the first three to enroll as undergraduates.

The names also included James Lewis Cates, a black man murdered by white supremacists on the UNC campus in 1970, and Maya Little, a doctoral history student at the university and an outspoken activist who’d called for Silent Sam’s removal. In April, Little smeared a mix of red paint and her own blood on the statue.

Protesters toppled Silent Sam, the Confederate statue on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus, on Monday after a demonstration in support of a graduate student who faces criminal and honor court charges for throwing red ink and blood on the statue in April.

Less than 24 hours after protesters used a rope to pull the statue down on Monday night, a continuous crowd surrounded its pedestal on Tuesday. News crews filmed footage. Curious onlookers stopped to take pictures. More than once on Tuesday afternoon, people walked up to the pedestal, spit on what was left of the Confederate monument and walked away without breaking stride.

HK Edgerton talks about why he thinks monuments like UNC's 'Silent Sam' are important to the South

For UNC’s incoming freshmen, the fall of Silent Sam on Monday coincided with their first college classes on Tuesday. The moment was not lost on Naomi Johnson, a freshman from Cary who is African-American. Late Tuesday afternoon, she walked past the former site of Silent Sam with two friends, and she said the removal of the statue “made me proud to be a student here.”

“Hopefully this is a stepping stone forward,” she said of the fall of the statue, “that we’re going to figure out how to restore our history and remember our history that doesn’t glorify the not-so-great parts of our history.”

Walking past Silent Sam — seeing it, sharing a campus with it — was, Johnson said, “frankly not something that we should have to do. We shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable on our own campus when we’re just trying to be here like everybody else and get our own education.”

While Johnson and her friends stood near the site, looking up where Silent Sam once stood, Tim Osborn, a graduate student in physics, sat on the corner of the pedestal. For a while, Osborn, who is white, sat alone in quiet solitude.

He said he’d been there the night before among the protesters calling for Silent Sam’s removal. The protests had been combative, he said, and he described confrontations between people on his side, those who wanted the statue to be taken down, and those on the other side, who wanted it to remain.

On Tuesday, Osborn had come back to the scene to reflect but also to stand guard.

“The whole reason I’m here,” he said, “is I don’t want people to get hurt. I’m here to make sure our people are good.”

Protesters and police officers class around the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, NC Monday night, August, 20, 2018.

The statue’s fall has not been a cause of celebration for everybody. Some who favored its removal have expressed their dismay at the way in which it came down, by the protesters’ pull of a rope. Others simply wanted Silent Sam to remain standing as he had since 1913, facing north with a rifle on his shoulder, a canteen emblazoned with “C.S.A.” — Confederate States of America — hanging at his side.

Maggie Horzempa, the chairwoman of the UNC College Republicans, released a statement earlier in the week in which she described the statue’s removal as “dangerous vandalism” and “mob rule.” She called for UNC and the Orange County District Attorney to investigate the toppling of the statue and to hold those responsible accountable.

“There can and should be a worthwhile and healthy debate about the current day appropriateness of certain monuments, remembrances, and memorials on the UNC campus and across North Carolina,” Horzempa said, according to her statement. “It is important to make one thing very clear: the statue should be moved back in place, as it was not lawfully removed.”

UNC workers remove the toppled Silent Sam statue from campus early Tuesday morning after protesters pulled it down Monday night, Aug. 21, 2018.

Some recognized the statue’s absence, after it had been in place for more than a century, as an educational opportunity. Lori Edmonds, a professor in UNC’s School of Education, led her students to the site. She stood near the back of their group while they quietly stared at the pedestal with the names on the posters.

Edmonds, who said she’s in her third year working at UNC, said she has brought her class to the Silent Sam statue for the past four semesters. Usually they make the short walk across campus during the third week of classes, but now, she said, history inspired immediacy.

“I can’t have had the statue come down last night and wait three weeks to bring my students out here,” said Edmonds, who is white.

She described her class as “a social equity course” in which students spend time discussing how their backgrounds lead to varying perspectives. The point of visiting the statue, Edmonds said, was to encourage discussion of how those backgrounds can cause people to see the same things differently.

During her short time at UNC, she had come to see the statue as the divisive symbol that, for decades, had prompted calls for its removal.

“I think that it’s been a long time that that statue has been causing a lot of people pain,” Edmonds said. “And frankly, I’m glad that it’s not here anymore.”

RAL_ SILENTSAM2NE082118CEL.JPG
A group of people celebrate and take photos at the base of the pedestal where of the Silent Sam statue stood Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, on the campus of UNC in Chapel Hill, N.C. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Moments earlier, Makayla Jeffreys and Brianna Yarborough, both freshmen and both African-American, approached the former site of Silent Sam with their phones in their hands, taking pictures. They hadn’t attended the protest on Monday night, and this was the first time they’d walked through this part of campus without seeing the statue.

“We came out to look,” said Yarborough, from Wendell.

On the other side of McCorkle Place, in the oldest part of one of the oldest public university campuses in the country, a long line of UNC freshmen waited to take a sip from the water fountain in the Old Well. It has become a part of campus lore that drinking from the fountain on the first day of the fall semester leads to good fortune.

Yarborough and Jeffreys had walked from that direction. They walked toward a place on campus that, until Tuesday, many black students had said they’d gone out of their way to avoid.

Jeffreys, from Henderson, said she’d learned about Silent Sam for the first time in a class at Northern Vance High. She said she understood the history of the monument and now, seeing for the first time that it really was gone, she described the removal as “a turn for the whole school.”

The news had been surprising, Jeffreys said. She knew of the protest Monday night. There had been protests in the past, though, and the statue had stood through them all. It had stood while many on the campus wanted it to fall.

Finally, on Tuesday, it was gone. Walking past the ground where Silent Sam had stood for so long, Jeffreys said she felt the significance of this moment. “I feel like the people have spoken,” she said.

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