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Trustees Hear the Passion of Silent Sam Detractors

Speakers told the UNC trustees that the Confederate statue Silent Sam is both a symbol of evil and now a threat to safety.(Photo by Grant Halverson ’93)

“The Civil War had nothing to do with honor, with defending the land, with freedom,” Aisling Henihan said. “But through my childhood and my education, I internalized that a lot. I am angry about that. The argument that leaving the statue be hurts nobody is another lie. It hurts every member of our community who learns the lie of the Lost Cause.

“There is nothing innocuous,” the UNC junior concluded, “about that monument.”

Henihan and most of 27 other speakers told the UNC trustees Wednesday that the Confederate statue Silent Sam is both a symbol of evil and now a threat to safety.

“I stand at the statue almost every day and give information about it to passersby,” said Maya Little, a leader of the Silent Sam activists and a doctoral student in history. “I see this as a part of my duty here as a history student and teacher. … It is a public safety hazard. White supremacists, some of them Carolina fans and alumni, tell us we need to stop talking about racism. They tell us we need to be put back in our place. … They tell us that they will bring their guns. … They tell us that they will end us. That they will kill us.”

Several of the speakers also tartly criticized the University for sending a UNC police officer undercover among students who keep a vigil at the statue, a practice the police defended.

In contrast to previous recent rallies and boisterous debates over the monument’s presence on the campus, the Carolina Inn ballroom audience of about 100 was silent for the speakers who responded to an invitation from the trustees to share their thoughts. There was no discussion. The trustees and Chancellor Carol L. Folt took the verbal and write-in comments under advisement for whatever action they might take on the contentious issue, though nearly three months into the semester it is no clearer what leverage they might have against a state law that protects public monuments.

“To advocate that the monument be moved is not to advocate the erasure of history,” said Fitzhugh Brundage, chair of the history department who specializes in the South. “I believe we should preserve Silent Sam, but as a historical artifact, not as a conspicuous commemorative symbol. Because this University has an exceptionally important place in the history of American higher education.

“The monument occupies a privileged public space, indeed I would say the most privileged public space on this campus, and it symbolizes an interpretation of the past that is utterly incompatible with the principles these students and this University strive to uphold. The continued presence of this monument in its current location is a threat to the safety of the people of our University, and it is a daily affront.”

The N.C. General Assembly in 2015 enacted a law that prohibits the removal or relocation of publicly sited monuments without the permission of the N.C. Historical Commission. As the semester started with hundreds of people rallying in McCorkle Place for the removal of the statue in the days after the racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., campus officials hoped to be able to take it down for safety reasons. Gov. Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD) said University officials were within their right to remove the statue if they perceived an immediate threat. UNC interpreted that differently, saying it did not have the authority.

Since then, police and protesters have maintained a regular presence at Silent Sam. In early November, police acknowledged that an officer posed as an auto mechanic who sympathized with protesters and tried to win their confidence. That set the students off; they believe the police crossed a line.

“Using our resources to fund a 24-hour surveillance of a racist statue and at least one undercover cop for a peaceful protest organized by students … is not only an inappropriate use of those funds but a strong demonstration that UNC is not at all interested in fostering the success and prosperity of each rising generation,” Michelle Brown, a senior, told the trustees.

At Folt’s urging, police Chief Jeff McCracken and Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management, wrote a letter to The Daily Tar Heel in which they defended the undercover work as safety-related and not surveillance.

“By nature, public college campuses present unique challenges for campus police because members of our campus community and outside groups often come together to protest or to participate in other activities,” they wrote. “Specifically, we have been and remain concerned about our students getting caught in the middle of violent conflict similar to that experienced in Charlottesville, especially in the presence of the monument.

“Although deploying undercover officers on our campus is rare,” they continued, “it is a standard policing practice that has been used on other university campuses (i.e., when threats associated with public spaces are credible, crowds have formed, tensions are high or unknown individuals with questionable intent are on campus). … Our officers do not monitor the content of any protest beyond the public safety implications nor do they create reports about students or their law-abiding activities.”

Six of the 28 speakers addressed the undercover work.

Two of Wednesday’s speakers said they support leaving Sam in place.

James Ward, who said he is an alumnus, said: “Some people want to take it down because they say it represents racism. Yes, there was rampant racism in this country … but that was over 100 years ago. Times have radically changed. Most of us look at the statue today and see a memorial to our ancestors, our blood kin, who died in a devastating war. Most of those people went to war reluctantly because their state had called them to fight off an invasion of the South.

“The statue should remain because it is a memorial to these sons of the University — it should remain because it tells a part of the history of the University, and it should remain because this University should not succumb to the demands of any group because it demonstrates the most and shouts the loudest.”

Eunice Brock ’68 (MSLS), a longtime Chapel Hillian, said, “I applaud your opposition to racism,” but said she doesn’t think Sam represents racism. Brock sees a poor foot soldier who couldn’t avoid war service the way people of means more easily could.

Heather Ahn-Redding brought a small Confederate flag to the meeting. “This is a hate symbol,” she said. “And it should elicit discomfort. Imagine if you were to walk by this very flag displayed prominently on campus. … I hope everyone is distracted, because this is what Silent Sam is like on campus. It’s a distraction, and it’s uncomfortable. I would argue that Silent Sam is equivalent to this very flag. If you’re comfortable with this hate symbol looming over campus, then keep Silent Sam right where it is. … A monument to the Confederacy is no different from this hate symbol.”

Mya Roberson, a student in the School of Public Health, said: “I’m reminded every day that this institution was built by people like me and not for people like me. If it was up to the people that Silent Sam represents, I would be counted as three-fifths of a human and in shackles. I avoid that part of campus every single day because I do not want to be confronted with imagery that I’m worth less than a person.”

Six of the speakers made reference to phrases the University is using in its recently announced $4.25 billion fundraising campaign, particularly the slogan “For all kind.”

Atrayus Goode ’07 said he recently watched a campaign video.

“The narrator made pretty strong assertions about UNC, Goode said. “At one point he says, quote, ‘As an institution created of the people, for the people, we at Carolina put people first.’ My question is, in the context of Silent Sam, and what the statue represents, what kind of people are we putting first? Is it really all kind?”

Supriya Sadagopan, who is studying for a master’s, said: “Students of color should not have to defend why the embodiment of superiority and violence that pays homage to the Anglo-Saxon race should be taken down. Rather, the administration should be forced to state its reasons for why such a symbol of exclusion and injustice should even have a platform.”

Mario Benavente, a senior, a vigil keeper at the statue, said he was fooled by the undercover officer. “I was there when three folks from out of town decided to come in and ask us what we would do if they came back with more of their friends, and they came back with guns. What would we do then. Are we willing to take a bullet over the issues we have with Silent Sam. I was there when Maya was confronted by a very large, very intimidating person who got in her face and made otherwise racially motivated gestures to her.”

Sophomore Dylan Mole said: “When I received my acceptance letter to this University, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. … But I have to say that the sense of pride diminishes every time I look up at that statue.”


 

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