The rise and fall of Silent Sam
It was a good bet that UNC’s plan for Silent Sam was going to be criticized regardless of what the administration came up with.
But the instant uproar on Monday could not be dismissed as only that, because few had envisioned a proposal this outrageous in 2018: Spending 5.3 million of North Carolina taxpayers’ dollars to build an on-campus shrine to the racially motivated Confederate monument and then spending $800,000 every year to protect it.
That’s what UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Chapel Hill board of trustees recommended on Monday for the statue that protesters tore down in August. The proposal reveals a startling lack of understanding of how most students, faculty, staff and community members feel and a dismissal of the feedback those groups offered leading up to the decision.
It’s hard to imagine a more expensive solution for what to do with Sam’s remains, or one that makes UNC look more out of touch. At the same time that Duke University is removing white supremacist Julian Carr’s name from a building, UNC Chapel Hill recommends spending millions for “the construction of a new free-standing, single-use building with appropriate buffers and state-of-the-art security measures” to house a relic that history shows was initially raised with racist motivations. It was Carr, in fact, who spoke at Silent Sam’s dedication in 1913 and bragged about severely whipping a “negro wench” for insulting a white woman.
The proposal has the feel of a university administration afraid to go to the mat for what is right and what it and its constituents believe, and seeking to mollify its conservative Board of Governors. It surely faced an unwinnable predicament.
But Silent Sam deserves no place of honor on UNC’s campus. Even without it, the university honors students who died in the Civil War in a couple of places on campus, including on marble tablets in Memorial Hall. If the statue is to exist at all, it should be in an off-campus history museum surrounded by full context. With its recommendation Monday, UNC Chapel Hill meekly said that while it thinks the statue belongs in the NC Museum of History in Raleigh, state law forbids that and so it instead suggests the new building.
While the university is probably reading state law correctly, it could and should have urged legislators to reconsider the law, or to at least make an exception in this unique case. Given that it will be late 2020 at best before all the necessary approvals for the Sam shrine are secured, it is optimistic but not out of the question to think that could still happen under the new General Assembly elected last month or even the one to be elected in November 2020.
Instead, for now, the university pushes a plan that is immediately applauded by alt-right, white nationalist websites.
Can anyone think of a better way UNC could spend $5.3 million and $800,000 every year going forward? How about scholarships for low-income and minority students? How about history symposiums or racial reconciliation events? How about anything that feeds North Carolina’s hopeful future rather than celebrating a shameful past?