When James Moeser arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill as chancellor in 2000, he was asked by African-American students to tour the campus with them.
The students showed him buildings named for Ku Klux Klan members and other 19th century white supremacists and at least one building likely built by slaves. They ended at the Confederate soldier memorial known as Silent Sam, standing sentinel at the doorstep of the campus.
“What are you asking me to do?” Moeser asked. They told him, “Chancellor, we just want you to tell the truth about the history of this place.”
Moeser says he did instruct drafters of campus literature to include darker sides of the UNC story. But at the end of his eight–year tenure in 2008, Silent Sam remained in place.
“I will confess to you that one of my failings as chancellor was not removing that monument when I had had a chance to do it,” Moeser said recently. When activists toppled the statue, he said, “I gave a private cheer when our students had the courage to do what I didn’t have the courage to do.”
Moeser spoke recently at a Chapel Hill forum put on by Carolina Public Humanities. His was one of two statements on the Silent Sam issue that impressed me.
The other was from Deborah Stroman, a former ACC basketball player who teaches in the UNC School of Public Health. She was critical of campus and state leaders for failing to come to grips with racial antagonism on campus.
“If those in power who refuse to act in ways that don’t value our need for connectedness, who are stuck in the denial of our history, who feel it’s important to listen to the vocal minority who embrace fear, we as the community have the obligation to resist and make change,” she said.
I came away from the forum with a sense of dissonance between Chapel Hill and the rest of the world. Five of the six speakers agreed that Silent Sam needed to go, and judging from the Q&A afterward, I’d guess that 95 percent of the audience were of like mind.
Yet an Elon University Poll last year found that 60 percent of those surveyed said Confederate monuments should stay in place. A more recent poll conducted by the right-leaning Civitas Institute said 70 percent disapproved of the toppling of Silent Sam.
At a recent gathering in Charlotte, I found myself having to answer, “What’s going on in Chapel Hill?” An acquaintance who is a corporate CEO asked me about “mob rule” and “the rule of law” — echoing the language used by UNC System President Margaret Spellings and the Board of Governors after the statue was taken down.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt is under a Nov. 15 deadline to make recommendations about Silent Sam. I would suggest that the issue facing us is not so much what to do with the artifact — other Civil War monuments have been whisked away without wrenching public fallout.
The greater question is how to bridge the gap between the siege mentality in Chapel Hill and the public antagonism, or confusion, reflected in polls. UNC prides itself on its tripartite mission of teaching, research and public service. The Silent Sam conundrum lends itself to teaching about the university’s complicated racial history and engaging the greater community in revisiting that legacy.
We have seen in other statewide controversies that opinion can be changed with the intervention of moderate, respected leaders. Think of the voices raised in opposition to the notorious “bathroom bill” by business, entertainment and sports figures, which ultimately forced the legislature to change the law.
Maybe the memorial debate can be seen as an opportunity, not a problem. As UNC history professor Lloyd Kramer put it, at the recent panel discussion:
“If people in South Africa and people in other deeply divided societies can create truth and reconciliation commissions as a way to both confront the past honestly and move toward the future, can we do something similar in North Carolina and at UNC?”