Legislators hope to find a compromise and a new home for UNC’s controversial Confederate statue

By: - February 16, 2018 5:00 am
Image: Creative Commons

Students, faculty and staff at UNC continue to protest the Chapel Hill campus’ Confederate monument, “Silent Sam.” The North Carolina Historical Commission continues to grapple with whether it can legally remove the statue.

When the General Assembly reconvenes in mid-May, a group of Democratic state lawmakers say they’ll attempt what might be the impossible: a compromise solution.

“There certainly are not the votes in the General Assembly to remove it from campus,” said N.C. Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange). “We’re working on a bill to move it inside somewhere – somewhere it can be safe and there won’t be the confrontations over it.”

Insko suggests the campus’ Wilson Library or Ackland Art Museum might be good locations –  places the statue could still be available to the public and a reminder of the history it represents, but not in its current place at the entrance to the campus.

“This is a time when we have a culture-wide consciousness raising,” Insko said. “When we are all becoming more aware that this means more than we thought it did to a lot of people. It’s a good time to take action. But the monument should be a reminder – we don’t want to forget the past. We’re right now repeating some mistakes because we’ve forgotten the past.”

The statue of a Confederate soldier, erected in 1913 as a tribute to UNC students who fought for the South during the Civil War, has drawn controversy for decades. But in the wake of deadly violence at a white supremacist rally over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia and the toppling of a Confederate monument in Durham last year, the push to remove the statue has taken on new urgency.

Over the summer Gov. Roy Cooper urged the university to move the statue. Though a 2015 law prohibits the movement of “objects of remembrance,” Cooper maintains that safety concerns would allow for the removal.

But Folt and the university’s Board of Trustees have declined to do so, citing the law. The UNC Board of Governors and the GOP leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly have warned the university and its administration against taking action on the statue and condemned administrators for even talking to Cooper, a Democrat, about the issue.

Insko’s bill could split the difference between the positions of those who want the statue removed from the campus entirely and those who believe that to do so would be erasing an essential piece of the campus’ history.

Rep. Verla Insko, Rep. Graig Meyer, and Sen. Valerie Foushee are working on the compromise bill.

Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange) is working with Insko on the bill. He said he can see both perspectives.

“My view is that it does not belong in a place of such prominence and a place that is seen to be the gateway to the university because it is an offensive statue to so many people,” Meyer said in an interview this week. “But there is a sincere and I think appropriate desire for people to have a monument to their ancestors who lost their lives in a war. That’s something we do in a society – memorialize those who lost their lives in war with statues.”

Getting rid of the statue entirely would not be a politically feasible solution, Meyer said given that the membership of the General Assembly is substantially the same as it was when the 2015 law making it more difficult to remove such monuments was passed.

“But I feel that it can be in a place where all can people can feel welcomed,” Meyer said. “Because of its provenance and its position on campus right now, I think it continues to be used as a symbol of exclusion.”

And that, Meyer said, leads to inevitable conflicts – between groups of protesters and between protesters and law enforcement.

In August, a man was videotaped climbing the statue and bashing its face with a hammer.

Later that month, UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken drafted a memo in which he wrote that Silent Sam, as the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus, is a magnet for “extremist” groups and that students may be caught in the fight between these groups. He also warned that it would only be a matter of time before students tried to remove it themselves. He said the statue poses an “uniquely dangerous situation” and asked for any help possible to “mitigate” it.

Meyer said he and Insko share those concerns.

“I’m worried about people getting hurt, not the statue,” Meyer said. “I think with no resolution we’re going to see people try to take this into their own hands. We’ve already seen that.”

“If you end up in a situation where someone climbs onto the statue with an acetylene torch in the middle of the night and law enforcement have to try to stop them, it’s going to be unsafe for the person with the torch and also unsafe for law enforcement,” Meyer said.

Insko and Meyer said they’re working on the bill’s language now with help from Democratic State Sen. Valerie Foushee. They’re open to suggestions as to where the statue might be moved, they said, and eager to see this long-running and potentially dangerous conflict resolved peacefully.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.