On Monday, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees will vote on the disposition of Silent Sam. Theirs is an awesome responsibility, and the choice they make will be remembered as a defining statement for our time. In moments like this, history can provide helpful perspective.
During the 1920s, a new generation of students and faculty in Chapel Hill began, ever-so-cautiously, to explore the question of “whether or not to maintain racial segregation.” That effort met stiff resistance. On campus, historian Joseph Hamilton demanded that there be “no yielding on the question of the admission of the negro to equality.” Outside the university, critics objected in terms echoed today. They denounced faculty who chased “fads and fancies” and insisted that professors stick to their duties as “teachers of regular courses.”
That opposition left many in Chapel Hill hesitant and afraid. Sociologist Howard Odum explained: “We are afraid to protest. We are afraid to legislate. We are afraid to enforce law and liberty. We are afraid to teach. We are afraid to preach. Afraid of the public, afraid of the demagogue, and deep down, rationalizing amid the fears, we are afraid to do anything. . . . We are all afraid.”
Friends of the university urged caution, fearful of the political price of any challenge to Jim Crow. What they failed to calculate was the much larger cost of inaction: the violence and daily degradation inflicted on blacks and Native Americans, and the poverty, illness, and ignorance suffered by many whites as well in a state more concerned to maintain white supremacy than to invest in the health and well-being of its citizens.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Today, we stand at a similarly decisive moment. The debate over Silent Sam is highly charged, and its resolution will require goodwill and forbearance from all parties. My experience has been that when people examine the history of the monument, they understand why it has no place on the campus of a university owned by, and dedicated to serving, all the people of North Carolina.
Several observations might help us think through the decision at hand:
As the American Historical Association (AHA) noted in a statement made last year, “to remove [Confederate] monuments is neither to ‘change’ history nor ‘erase it.’ What changes with such removal is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor.” Put another way, each new generation has a responsibility to make its own moral judgments, informed by history but not beholden to the past for the past’s sake.
The AHA also reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected “without anything resembling a democratic process.” African Americans had no voice in the matter. Nor did descendants of white southerners who defended the Union, or those who devoted their lives to building a more just and equitable future after Emancipation.
The removal of Confederate monuments does not create a slippery slope that will lead to dishonoring the nation’s founders, or in the case of UNC-Chapel Hill, leaders from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. Again, the AHA: “George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation – however imperfect – and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery.” False analogies should not mislead us.
The removal of monuments does not destroy their value as teaching tools. Scholars teach every day with artifacts that they neither possess nor have close to hand. Those objects are held at historic sites and in museums and private collections. With today’s technologies, they can be digitized, documented, reproduced, and made accessible to students on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago.
Finally, the removal of Confederate monuments erected in the Jim Crow era does not banish from memory the men who died in war. The names of UNC’s Confederate dead are inscribed on marble tablets that flank the stage in Memorial Hall. They are also part of the memorial to Those Lost in Military Service, dedicated outside of Memorial Hall in 2007. In these places, the university mourns the humanity of the fallen. Theirs were hundreds of lives among hundreds of thousands more — Union and Confederate, enslaved and free — extinguished in the epic struggle to liberate the United States and its people from the scourge of racial slavery.
An overview of the history surrounding Silent Sam and the rise of Confederate monuments can be found here.
In deciding the future of Silent Sam, the university — and the people of North Carolina — have an opportunity to advance the unfinished work of Emancipation and to contribute to a reckoning with history that is long overdue. Whatever the outcome, this moment will have lasting consequences, both for the university and for the society it serves.