As the legislative session winds down, Democrats seek a compromise for storing “Silent Sam”

By: - June 13, 2018 6:19 am
Image: Creative Commons

A new bill to relocate the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on UNC’s flagship Chapel Hill campus aims to be a compromise in the contentious, decades-long fight over the statue.

The bill would move the monument – the only Confederate statue on any UNC campus – to a “permanent indoor location” on campus to prevent further vandalism and provide greater historical context.

But that sort of compromise may face an uphill battle.

Opponents of the monument – among them UNC students and faculty – say the bill doesn’t go far enough. They say that, as a matter of principle, the statue should be removed from campus entirely.

Also standing on principle are defenders of the statue, including leaders of the General Assembly’s GOP majority and those they appoint to the UNC Board of Governors. They say moving the statue to avoid vandalism is simply giving in to vandals.

State Representative Graig Meyer (D-Orange), one of the primary sponsors of the bill, said a 2015 law on the relocation of monuments makes it nearly impossible for universities and local governments to permanently relocate monuments like “Silent Sam.” As long as that law is in place, any solution to the problem of the statue – which was again defaced by a student protester in April – will have to come from the legislature. And that, Meyer, said, means compromise.

“I think that the compromise that we’re searching for allows for ‘Silent Sam’ to still be part of the story of the campus,” Meyer said. “It still allows for people who want to visit it and appreciate the elements of it that memorialize students who went off to war – they’ll still be able to do that.”

“Silent Sam” was erected at UNC in 1913. It was financed by UNC alumni and the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a tribute to students of the university who fought and died in the Civil War. It was created by prominent Canadian sculptor John A. Wilson, who also created the famous Pennsylvania Volunteer monument in Philadelphia. It cost $7,500 in 1913 – which is more than $185,000 today.

Rep. Verla Insko and Rep. Graig Meyer

Its supporters say removing it from its traditional place on campus would be erasing part of the campus’ long history.

But the statue’s detractors say a prominent monument to the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy, is both a distortion of history and contrary to the modern university’s values.

There have been efforts to put the statue in a proper historical context, but Meyer said putting it in a new place on campus would split the difference between what each side wants so strongly.

“People who want to move a monument that has been contextualized around white supremacy from the middle of campus will be able to see the campus environment has changed,” Meyer said. “They’ll see that welcoming area as you come onto campus will feel more welcoming.”

But students, professors and UNC community members who have been pushing for the statue’s removal say they’re not interested in that sort of compromise.

“I think it’s a real mistake to invest money like that and bring it inside somewhere,” said Altha Cravey, a tenured professor of Geography at UNC who has spent decades calling for the monument’s removal.

“I hesitate to criticize these lawmakers in particular, but since it attracts so much hate – it’s a lightning rod – I think it seems pretty shortsighted to just move it somewhere else,” Cravey said. “We really just need to get it off campus. We have to find the political will in North Carolina.”

Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown, a recent UNC graduate active in the movement to remove the statue, said that sentiment is widespread among students as well.

“Obviously I want to see it removed from my campus completely,” Brown said. “I think they’re doing this as a compromise and I understand that, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. I think the statue can be seen as a teaching moment, but I’ve seen some of the efforts to contextualize the state and I don’t think they go far enough. They don’t tell the whole truth.”

As the faculties of UNC’s History and Classics departments have stressed in their opposition to the statue, it was not erected after the Civil War. Instead, it was part of a national movement to erect such statues in the Jim Crow era. During its dedication, industrialist Julian Carr lauded the Confederate preservation of “the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon” race in the South and bragged he himself “horse-whipped a negro wench” 100 yards from where “Silent Sam” stands.

Given that history, Brown said, the monument should not be given its current place of prominence at McCorkle place, the University’s upper quad, facing Franklin Street. If it was to be removed to an indoor space, Brown said, it should not take until 2020 – the deadline the bill gives for moving the statue.

Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange) said she understands all of that. The current bill, now in the Rules committee, may not actually get a hearing or proper debate this legislative session, she said. But it may be the beginning of a conversation that needs to take place in the General Assembly about some sort of legislative solution.

It may also take until after the next election, when the Democratic minority hopes to break a Republican supermajority in the General Assembly.

“I think this all takes time and conversation,” Insko said. “One of the things I think we need to focus on is…and I didn’t think of this when I first saw the statue…I didn’t think of how offensive it would be to a Black person standing there looking at it. How would you feel having been through slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction and Jim Crow…and today there’s a statue standing there saying, ‘If we had our way we’d go back and put you back in this position.’”

It may take a long time to change hearts and minds on the statue, Meyer said. In the end, it may not be possible. But moving the statue also makes good fiscal sense, he said – something on which both parties can agree.

Meyer said the annual cost of securing “Silent Sam” is as much as $621,000 – a figure cited by UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken in a letter to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt in August of last year. The calculation was based on his department spending about $1,700 a day to maintain security at McCorkle Place near the statue.

The University has since said that figure does not necessarily match today’s cost, but says it doesn’t have a newer and more accurate figure.

At a UNC Board of Trustees meeting earlier this month, Folt told reporters that while her office has not been working with lawmakers on the bill, she welcomes a solution to the problem.

“I’ve said I think there’s a big safety issue, and I appreciate that,” Folt said. “We’re willing to work with anybody to help resolve those safety issues, and we also follow the law. We’re appreciative of everybody who is trying to make progress.”

Brown, the recent UNC graduate, said she doesn’t like to hear Folt talking as though she’s part of the solution.

“She has spent years opposing student protests, opposing progress on this, upholding the white supremacy of ‘Silent Sam’,” Brown said. “She supported undercover police trying to infiltrate protesters, she supported new policies to make it harder for those who are trying to have their voices heard. She shouldn’t get credit for any sort of solution that happens.”

A solution may yet be a ways off, as even the current bill’s sponsors admit.

“We have to try for a solution, though,” Insko said. “We have to keep having this conversation until we can find one.”

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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.