The statue known as “Silent Sam” was toppled in August by protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. School officials have proposed returning the statue to the campus, and many campus groups are objecting to those plans. (Gerry Broome/AP)
December 7 at 10:00 AM
Shock and anger continued to envelop the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this week following a decision by school leaders to return a Confederate monument to campus.
On Friday, faculty members are likely to renew their call to keep the statue known as “Silent Sam,” which was toppled by protesters in August, off the public university campus, several professors said.
“It is the most divisive issue I have seen on this campus in my time here,” said Jay M. Smith, a professor of history who has been on campus nearly three decades. “We’re just torn up over this.”
Savannah Putnam, the student body president, said, “This is all-consuming.”
On Monday, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved a plan to build an education and history center — estimated to cost $5.3 million to construct and $800,000 a year to operate — to house the bronze statue at a less-prominent site on campus. A report presenting the plan says that school officials would prefer to remove the monument from UNC and place it in a venue such as a museum, but state law does not allow that.
The statewide University of North Carolina Board of Governors is expected to vote on the plan next week and, if it is approved, request permission from the North Carolina Historical Commission to move the monument to the new building on campus.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Chapel Hill on Monday night, furious about what some called a $5 million shrine to white supremacy. Some graduate students called for a strike by teaching assistants, asking them to withhold end-of-term grades as a sign that they rejected the statue as racist and didn’t want it on the public university campus.
And some objected to the plans because they said the statue, which depicts a young soldier and salutes students who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, should be returned to the pedestal in the visible campus location where it stood for more than 100 years.
Members of the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised a 20-foot-by-30-foot Confederate flag along a main highway in the state. The North Carolina Division has been putting up flags throughout the state during the past couple of years to educate people about the war, said Kevin Stone, who leads the division.
But the people in Burke County who raised the giant flag this week were determined to do so to counteract the “vitriol” coming from university administrators intent on seeing the monument removed from campus, he said. It was also intended as a message to “those communist agitators, criminals, and misguided and poorly educated (in true history) students that were manipulated into attacking it.”
Student groups issued statements decrying the decision, and student government leaders said they planned to join others protesting next week. “This racist monument, symbolic of the worst parts of our University’s past, has no place on our campus,” they wrote, “and we are ashamed of those who voted for its return.”
Putnam, the student body president, said, “A lot of people are just upset and disappointed.” Activists have been pushing for the statue to be removed for many years, but the issue is now on the minds of most students, she said: “Now that it’s down, let it stay down.”
Chris Suggs, a leader in the school’s Black Student Movement, said in an email, “By returning this monument that glorifies the Confederacy and white supremacy to our campus, our University’s leaders are reaffirming the racist beliefs and ideals that led to its erection in 1913.”
Some graduates have been vocal in their objections as well. Leah Josephson, co-chair of the Ann Arbor Carolina Club in Michigan, said she has raised money for UNC and related organizations since she graduated in 2011, but was shocked and disappointed by the plan presented by Chancellor Carol Folt to keep Silent Sam on campus. “Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised,” she said, “but I couldn’t believe the university would spend so much money to promote this symbol of bigotry and racism.”
So she launched a petition for UNC graduates, students, faculty and staff to send a message to the board of governors before it votes on the plan. The petition had more than 1,100 signatures Thursday.
“The Board of Trustees and Chancellor Folt have prioritized the bigotry of a small number of major donors and right-wing politicians in developing their outrageous plan to spend more than $5 million of taxpayers’ dollars to construct an on-campus shrine to the racism and oppression that Silent Sam represents,” they wrote. “This shrine to Silent Sam and the KKK would require a militarized ‘safety buffer zone’ and more than $800,000 per year in operating expenses.”
Those who signed pledged not to donate money to the school until a plan is adopted to permanently remove the statue from campus. “I think young alumni really feel strongly that Silent Sam doesn’t represent the Carolina Way for us,” Josephson said.
A recent former leader of the Ann Arbor Carolina Club, Brooke Wolford, said she hoped that by signing and sharing the petition, they might send a message to the UNC Board of Governors that alumni are upset.
An online petition from the popular social advocacy site Care2 had nearly 3,900 digital signatures Thursday, from people agreeing with statements such as: “When anti-racist activists toppled this statue, they joined protesters and organizations across the United States taking down monuments, renaming buildings, and working together to heal the scars left by the legacy of slavery in the United States.”
Meanwhile, a member of the UNC Board of Governors expressed disdain for the plan, calling it cowardly and not in compliance with the law. Thom Goolsby, a lawyer and former state senator, did not respond to a request for comment, but he posted his views on social media this week.