Politics & Government

Silent Sam’s future is ‘a very public conversation,’ UNC leader says. But it hasn’t been so far.

Silent Sam is gone, but clashes in Chapel Hill continue

Pro-Confederate and anti-racist protesters met in Chapel Hill again this Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. The two groups yelled at each other as they walked around McCorkle Place then down Franklin St. until pro-Confederate demonstrators dispersed and left.
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Pro-Confederate and anti-racist protesters met in Chapel Hill again this Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. The two groups yelled at each other as they walked around McCorkle Place then down Franklin St. until pro-Confederate demonstrators dispersed and left.

In two weeks, a plan is due for the future of the toppled Silent Sam Confederate monument, but so far the UNC Board of Governors has not debated the issue openly, and a special board committee has met only once, in private.

The panel’s meeting, on Feb. 7, was not announced publicly and notice wasn’t given to media organizations — an apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law, according to Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association.

“You still have to provide notice, even if it’s not going to be an open meeting,” Martin said.

The law allows boards to go into closed session in certain situations, such as discussing lawsuits or personnel matters. But meetings of public bodies still have to be convened in public.

The UNC system board chairman, Harry Smith, said the subcommittee didn’t have a quorum when it met. But he pledged that future meetings would be public.

“Quite frankly I wasn’t even aware of the fact that we didn’t notice it,” Smith, a Greenville businessman, said in an interview. “I will tell you that it should be. We shouldn’t have a problem with that. I mean, it’s a very public conversation.”

The UNC system’s top attorney, Tom Shanahan, declined to respond to questions about why the meeting was not announced.

The committee’s chairman, Jim Holmes, said the meeting was informal, lasting about an hour or hour and a half. The five Board of Governors members on the special board committee talked about the issue with several UNC-Chapel Hill trustee members, he said.

“We’re just trying to figure out where we’re going,” said Holmes, a Raleigh businessman. “We met with folks from Chapel Hill and our committee, and we just had a level-setting dialogue. We reviewed options and kind of set a baseline.”

Neither Smith nor Holmes was specific about what was discussed or what options are now on the table. The controversial Confederate statue was toppled last August by protesters, and the question of what to do with it has dominated conversations at the Chapel Hill campus for months.

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.

Faculty and student groups, trustees and former Chancellor Carol Folt have said the statue should not remain on campus. The groups cited concerns about student safety and an unwelcoming environment created by Silent Sam’s presence.

Last year, after being charged by the Board of Governors with finding a solution, Folt and campus trustees had recommended that the university build a $5 million history center that would house Silent Sam and educate the public about its origin. That idea was rejected by the Board of Governors in December.

In January, Folt decided on her own to take action. She announced that she would resign, the same day she ordered the removal of the statue’s base. Folt was then pushed out early by the board.

‘Looking at every option’

It’s unclear whether the board’s special committee is making any progress toward a proposal. Smith and Holmes said they were not negotiating with the legislature about changing the 2015 law that bars the removal of historic monuments, even though two such bills have been introduced in Raleigh.

“I think they’re just looking at every option that they can,” Smith said of the committee. “I think the conversations are going well.”

In the immediate aftermath of Silent Sam coming down, a consensus began to build among the Board of Governors members that the statue should be put back up to comply with the law, according to emails released to The News & Observer through a public records request. At least nine expressed support for the idea of restoring the statue to its original spot, according to emails back and forth among the board members.

Three days after the statue fell, board member Marty Kotis, a Greensboro businessman, suggested erecting a fence around the reinstalled statue, as well as traffic devices that would keep vehicles out of the area. Kotis proposed signs that would give the proper context to the statue and an additional monument that would honor an African American in university history.

‘It must go back up’

Alex Mitchell, a Durham developer, said Kotis’ plan had merit, adding, “The fact is that it must go back up and it’s all about how we do it.”

Holmes chimed in that the statue should be contextualized with all views, whether it be Civil War heritage to some or a painful period that represents oppression to others.

“Leadership is often difficult and most certainly is not a popularity contest ... we should lead in explaining the entirety of this monument and also set the tone that we are a society of law and order and it’s not alright to resort to violence when you do not get your desired result on your time frame,” Holmes wrote on Aug. 23.

David Powers, a Raleigh lobbyist, said in an email that he generally agreed, but added that there should be a moratorium on any additional monuments.

“Campuses are not museums — you don’t learn from a monument, you learn from studying the circumstances that led to the monument,” Powers wrote. “Other than that, we must uphold the rule of law.”

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 board’s student member, Betty Njaramba of N.C. Central University, tried to persuade the members that the statue shouldn’t be re-erected.

“While I agree wholeheartedly that we are a nation of laws and cannot allow our system to be defined by lawlessness, this statue symbolizes a time when the law politicized the existence of people who look like myself and 45,000+ students within our system,” emailed Njaramba, who is African American. “I believe the restoration of this statue, regardless of our intent, will be viewed as the condoning of what this statue represents.”

A UNC-Chapel Hill trustee, Dwight Stone, emailed one Board of Governors member, Michael Williford, to say returning Silent Sam to campus was a very bad idea.

“Mike, putting the statue back up will make us ground zero for every nut job organization on both sides of the issue,” Stone wrote on Aug. 27. “There will be no way to guarantee safety and I promise you whatever is put back up is going to be the target of every one of these groups to destroy. Not only will it cost up [to] a million dollars a year of taxpayer money to try to protect it, but we will never be successful doing so without armed guards standing around it 24/7. What kind of visual signal does that send to every parent or potential parent of every student at UNC.”

‘My views and opinions changed’

The strongly held opinions around the time of the statue’s toppling may have mellowed over time. Smith said his views have evolved since he initially suggested the board “demand the statue be put back in place in a defined time line.”

He did not express a current explicit view about what should happen with the statue.

The board’s members’ views aren’t “in cement,” Smith said. “Look, my views and opinions changed as I got educated.”

In the 24 hours after the statue came down, governors were asking tough questions — why police didn’t stop the toppling, for example.

“The question is, were they told to stand down? If so, some one should be fired,” texted board member and former state senator, Bob Rucho.

In the following days and weeks, the site was a target for demonstrations and counter demonstrations, pitting the anti-statue activists against groups bearing flowers and Confederate flags. That has continued, with less frequency, including a clash last weekend. The events have prompted a heavy police presence and on occasion, officers used pepper spray to disperse the crowds.

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.

Text messages showed UNC officials and board members monitored the protests and arrests.

So did board members, on a group text in which the members weren’t identifiable, as they followed the livestream feeds of demonstrations. One texted, “So far it seems like the only peaceful protesters are the confederate supporters.” Another added, “This is the time I would support bringing in puppies and ice cream to calm everybody down.”

Former UNC President Margaret Spellings and Smith texted each other with strategic advice, referring to playing “chess” as Smith sought to gather enough votes on the Board of Governors to put the issue of Silent Sam’s placement first in the hands of the campus trustees.

“Always play chess Margaret not checkers ... remember ... It’s the NFL,” Smith texted to her on Aug. 23. A few days later, he told her that Senate Leader Phil Berger had called and added, “all good.”

“Steady hands steady hands steady messaging measured approaches we will get there,” Smith texted Spellings.

In late August, when Folt made the statement that the monument did not belong at “the front door” of a public university, some board members thought she went too far.

“I knew this would happen,” Wendy Murphy texted. “They took the resolution as an open door to moving it.”

Board member Tom Fetzer responded: “This is exactly why we should have never put this back in their domain.”

In another text string, someone with the initials TF had a new idea for the bronze statue: “BTW, I’m for relocating Silent Sam too. Hoe (sic) about Folt’s front yard? Wait, that’s not visible enough. How bout Spelling’s front yard?”

Board member Thom Goolsby responded: “This Marine will take the first round of guard duty.”

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
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