UNC Silent Sam statue’s fate undecided one year after protesters toppled it

The fate of the Silent Sam Confederate monument, which stood on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus for 105 years, is still undecided one year after it was toppled to the ground by protesters.

As students walk through McCorkle Place on the first day of classes Tuesday — maybe to stop and take a drink at the Old Well — they might not recognize the spot where the 8-foot-tall statue was erected. Its base has been removed, the manicured grass has grown over, and there are no police barricades protecting the space.

“Glad that my son is part of the first class @UNC in decades not to have Silent Sam looming over the campus entrance,” Geoff Green tweeted.

Green, a Chapel Hill resident whose son is an incoming freshman, said the statue’s absence makes the campus more welcoming for all students.

“It removes a symbol of divisiveness and racism from what is arguably the most prominent spot on campus,” Green said.

The Confederate memorial Silent Sam stands behind a double barricade as UNC-Chapel Hill prepares for a rally in front of the statue. CASEY TOTH

The remains of the Confederate monument, which honored UNC alumni who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, are stored away in an undisclosed location. If it was up to UNC interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Silent Sam wouldn’t be put back up.

“The monument doesn’t belong on our campus,” Guskiewicz said. “I think there’s a more appropriate place for it.”

But the decision is up to the UNC System Board of Governors, which hasn’t given any indication of what they’ll decide to do with it or when.

What’s happening with Silent Sam?

Students have been protesting the Confederate monument since the Civil Rights movement. When it was illegally torn down by protesters in August 2018, the debate began over whether it should be resurrected.

A 2015 state law signed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory bans removing, relocating or altering monuments, memorials and other “objects of remembrance” on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. But Gov. Roy Cooper has said the law’s exceptions allow the university to remove the statue for safety reasons.

UNC trustees and former chancellor Carol Folt discussed options last fall. But the UNC System Board of Governors took control of the process in December 2018 after rejecting UNC’s proposal of building a $5.3 million history center on the edge of campus to house the statue.

Five Board of Governors members were tasked with finding a solution as part of a committee that’s been consulting with Chapel Hill trustees and senior leadership. The committee members are Jim Holmes, Darrell Allison, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson and Bob Rucho. Their deadline for a proposal was extended twice this spring and then indefinitely.

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Anti-racist protesters hold a potluck on McCorkle Place, where the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam once stood, on Saturday, May 4, 2019. Pro-Confederate protesters held a rally across the street in Peace and Justice Plaza. Julia Wall

Guskiewicz said the committee has come to campus to meet with students, faculty and administrators, but none of the committee members provided details about the committee’s meetings, discussions or activities. Murphy said the committee has not met this summer.

Allison said via email “the members of this committee truly appreciate the gravity of this issue and are working accordingly.”

UNC System spokesman Jason Tyson said the group is still working with the university on different options, but there’s no deadline for a decision or a date set for a public discussion of ideas. Tyson did not say whether the issue would be resolved before or at the next Board of Governors meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 19 and 20.

What is UNC doing?

While there hasn’t been much movement at the board level, the campus itself is making some efforts to confront the issue.

“I heard first-hand how the events of the past year have impacted our campus,” Guskiewicz said. “We have a lot of work to do to truly create a diverse and inclusive environment.”

Campuses across the country are being forced to confront their history, particularly surrounding race, from the names of buildings to Confederate monuments to yearbooks featuring blackface. As the country’s oldest public university, UNC has been grappling with its own history and is taking an academic approach to addressing it now.

“When you’re a leading global public research university you take on the issues of our time and the monument certainly was a lightning rod,” Guskiewicz said.

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The protests and the conversations that followed Silent Sam’s fall throughout the year showed him that the campus needs to listen.

“There needs to be an appreciation of different viewpoints around issues such as this and there will be others,” Guskiewicz said. “I’m not going to ignore that we still have some challenges ahead as we think about race on our campus and ensuring a community where everyone feels welcome.”

RAL-1 Silent Sam protest.JPG
Members of ACTBAC and protesters face off at McCorkle Place on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, Thursday, August 30, 2018 during a rally to commemorate the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam by the Alamance County based group. Chuck Liddy Chuck Liddy, The News & Observer

UNC is offering a new series of courses this fall called “Reckoning: Race, Memory and Reimagining the Public University.” The College of Arts & Sciences course description says it “will support student learning and discussions about heritage, race, post-conflict legacies, politics of remembrance and contemporary projects of reconciliation.”

“We have world-renowned scholars on our campus who study these challenging issues,” Guskiewicz said “We think it’s important that we understand our past.”

The university is also launching a Commission on History, Race and Reckoning in September to help the school navigate teaching the campus’ history and to engage the community. The commission will build on UNC’s History Task Force and make recommendations that include input from students, faculty and staff.

How is UNC handling the anniversary of Silent Sam’s fall?

The university is aware of at least one event on campus Tuesday that could cause a stir.

Two community groups — Defend UNC and Take Action Chapel Hill — are hosting “Silent Sam is Down: Anniversary Party!” Tuesday night to “celebrate the one-year anniversary of Silent Sam’s fall.” They have planned a walking tour where participants will “speak out against ongoing racism at UNC.”

University spokeswoman Joanne Peters-Denny said campus security plans vary daily depending on specific needs and didn’t detail any specific tactics for conflicts that might arise on the anniversary. She said Guskiewicz, UNC Police and senior leadership have been meeting regularly to “ensure the safety of all of our students who wish to express their views.”

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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