We stand at a decisive moment on Silent Sam. We should not be afraid.
On Monday, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees will vote on the disposition of Silent Sam. Theirs is an awesome responsibility, and the choice they make will be remembered as a defining statement for our time. In moments like this, history can provide helpful perspective.
During the 1920s, a new generation of students and faculty in Chapel Hill began, ever-so-cautiously, to explore the question of “whether or not to maintain racial segregation.” That effort met stiff resistance. On campus, historian Joseph Hamilton demanded that there be “no yielding on the question of the admission of the negro to equality.” Outside the university, critics objected in terms echoed today. They denounced faculty who chased “fads and fancies” and insisted that professors stick to their duties as “teachers of regular courses.”
That opposition left many in Chapel Hill hesitant and afraid. Sociologist Howard Odum explained: “We are afraid to protest. We are afraid to legislate. We are afraid to enforce law and liberty. We are afraid to teach. We are afraid to preach. Afraid of the public, afraid of the demagogue, and deep down, rationalizing amid the fears, we are afraid to do anything. . . . We are all afraid.”
Friends of the university urged caution, fearful of the political price of any challenge to Jim Crow. What they failed to calculate was the much larger cost of inaction: the violence and daily degradation inflicted on blacks and Native Americans, and the poverty, illness, and ignorance suffered by many whites as well in a state more concerned to maintain white supremacy than to invest in the health and well-being of its citizens.
Today, we stand at a similarly decisive moment. The debate over Silent Sam is highly charged, and its resolution will require goodwill and forbearance from all parties. My experience has been that when people examine the history of the monument, they understand why it has no place on the campus of a university owned by, and dedicated to serving, all the people of North Carolina.
Several observations might help us think through the decision at hand:
As the American Historical Association (AHA) noted in a statement made last year, “to remove [Confederate] monuments is neither to ‘change’ history nor ‘erase it.’ What changes with such removal is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor.” Put another way, each new generation has a responsibility to make its own moral judgments, informed by history but not beholden to the past for the past’s sake.
The AHA also reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected “without anything resembling a democratic process.” African Americans had no voice in the matter. Nor did descendants of white southerners who defended the Union, or those who devoted their lives to building a more just and equitable future after Emancipation.
The removal of Confederate monuments does not create a slippery slope that will lead to dishonoring the nation’s founders, or in the case of UNC-Chapel Hill, leaders from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. Again, the AHA: “George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation – however imperfect – and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery.” False analogies should not mislead us.
The removal of monuments does not destroy their value as teaching tools. Scholars teach every day with artifacts that they neither possess nor have close to hand. Those objects are held at historic sites and in museums and private collections. With today’s technologies, they can be digitized, documented, reproduced, and made accessible to students on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago.
Finally, the removal of Confederate monuments erected in the Jim Crow era does not banish from memory the men who died in war. The names of UNC’s Confederate dead are inscribed on marble tablets that flank the stage in Memorial Hall. They are also part of the memorial to Those Lost in Military Service, dedicated outside of Memorial Hall in 2007. In these places, the university mourns the humanity of the fallen. Theirs were hundreds of lives among hundreds of thousands more — Union and Confederate, enslaved and free — extinguished in the epic struggle to liberate the United States and its people from the scourge of racial slavery.
In deciding the future of Silent Sam, the university — and the people of North Carolina — have an opportunity to advance the unfinished work of Emancipation and to contribute to a reckoning with history that is long overdue. Whatever the outcome, this moment will have lasting consequences, both for the university and for the society it serves.
Silent Sam was a symbol of mob violence itself
After protesters toppled Silent Sam, the Confederate statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, politicians and pundits issued dire warnings about mob violence and the threat it poses to the rule of law. But history suggests that the issue is not that clear-cut. For more than a century, Silent Sam stood as a sentinel of white supremacy that lent dignity and respectability to systematic mob violence. This is the larger issue of law and order that is at stake in recent events. It has haunted our state and nation for generations, and as yet it remains unresolved.
In her speech at the statue’s dedication, Mary Lyde Hicks Williams, president of the North Carolina Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, spoke directly to its meaning. It was, she reported, one of 700 such “monuments to the Southern Cause” that the UDC had erected across the region. That choice of words was revealing. The statue honored alumni who fought for the Confederacy, and as the UDC explained in its constitution, “those survivors, who having faithfully served and suffered,” remained loyal to Confederate principles.
The students who left the university’s classrooms for the battlefield, and the audience that joined Mary Williams to memorialize them, understood the Southern Cause full well. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, had explained it in his “corner-stone” speech, delivered on March 21, 1861 and widely published throughout the nation.
Stephens said of the Confederacy, “its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
The North Carolina Daughters of the Confederacy left no room to doubt their allegiance to that principle. In 1905, they bought a Ku Klux Klan flag used in the postwar years of Reconstruction and sent it off for display in the North Carolina Room at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. They celebrated the purchase with a mock Ku Klux rally. Two decades later, the Daughters again memorialized the Klan, this time with a plaque attached to Tradition Rock, a landmark on the outskirts of Concord that had been an assembly point for hooded nightriders.
The “moral truth” of white supremacy, venerated by the UDC and other keepers of Confederate memory, was a lie that produced ruthless brutality. It inspired the acts of terror that were the Klan’s answer to black emancipation; it gave legitimacy to murderous white supremacy campaigns, including the Wilmington riot and coup in 1898; and from the 1880s through the 1960s, it aroused the anger of white vigilantes who, in acts of true mob violence, lynched thousands of black men and women.
In every instance, the perpetrators justified their crimes in the name of law and order. We should be wary of thinking only in those terms as we confront the troubles of our own time. We would do better to reckon honestly with the dark legacies of the past. That is the path to reconciliation and the means of ending the racial divisiveness that for too long has brought too much pain to too many North Carolinians.
History speaks on intentions behind Confederate statues
Here in Chapel Hill and across the nation, debate rages over the fate of Confederate monuments. The local object of concern is the bronze statue of a soldier, known by the nickname “Silent Sam,” that has stood watch for more than a century at the historic northern entrance to the University of North Carolina.
For advocates of removal, the statue is a disturbing reminder of our collective failure to reckon with the legacies of slavery. Defenders counter that it stands for heritage, not hate, and that removing it would erase history.
What are we to make of these competing claims? Silent Sam’s own story might help to answer that question.
The University and the United Daughters of the Confederacy started to plan and raise funds for the monument in 1908. Five years later, they dedicated it during spring Commencement exercises. Those dates hold the key to the monument’s meaning.
Silent Sam was part of a wave of memorialization that began shortly after 1900, when white supremacists stripped black men of the right to vote and closed a long and bloody struggle over racial equality that had divided North Carolinians since the end of the Civil War. By 1926, 53 additional statues of Confederate soldiers stood in public squares across North Carolina. Only six had been erected before 1902.
The civic leaders who financed and built those monuments made their intentions clear: they sought to normalize white supremacy and give legitimacy to the Jim Crow regime that they began to build in the early 20th century.
Listen to UNC alumnus Julian Shakespeare Carr, a Confederate veteran and leading industrialist, speaking at Silent Sam’s dedication. Carr lauded his brothers in arms, the living as well as the dead, for their “deathless valor” on the battlefield, and for their courage in mounting violent opposition to black equality in the years after the Civil War.
Those men “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race,” Carr explained. And “to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.”
Like today’s white nationalists who are recruiting on college campuses, Carr had his eye on the future no less than the past. His audience was “the present generation” of university students, who had been born well after the Civil War. For them – and for children not yet born – Silent Sam would offer an enduring lesson about duty and white men’s right to rule.
The is no easy way to explain away Carr’s words and worldview. We know the familiar argument: he was simply a man of his times who spoke to what everyone thought back then. In point of fact, Carr was a self-described architect of Jim Crow, and his vision for North Carolina’s future elicited stiff opposition from black residents and a significant number of whites. In their battle with those dissenters, Carr and like-minded men and women wielded history and memorialization as instruments of white power.
That abuse of history has no place in an America that promises liberty and justice for all. Silent Sam belongs in a museum, or some similar setting, where he might call new generations to a very different sense of moral obligation.
A century ago, white supremacists erected monuments to dignify the Confederate cause and posted Jim Crow signs to segregate nearly every aspect of life. The Civil Rights Movement gave us the moral courage to pull down those signs. Today, our duty is to complete the work by taking Confederate heroes down from their pedestals. Doing so will not erase history. It will instead demonstrate history’s power to enlighten the present and liberate the future.