Silent Sam Survives

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has announced its recommendation that the school build a new, $5.3 million building to house the Confederate monument.

Police surround Silent Sam during a protest in 2017. (Gerry Broome/AP)

When Silent Sam, the statue of a Confederate soldier that stood sentinel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until he was yanked from his station in August, was being dedicated in 1913, Julian Carr, a philanthropist and white supremacist, took a moment to brag. “I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds,” he said in his speech, adding that he performed the “pleasing duty” in front of his entire garrison.

On Saturday, Duke University announced that it would remove Carr’s name from a building on its East Campus. “[The] white supremacist actions that Carr pursued throughout his life, even when considered in light of the time in which they were held, are inconsistent with the fundamental aspirations of this university,” the committee that voted to remove his name wrote.

Two days later, and 10 miles down the road, UNC’s board of trustees convened to decide the fate of the monument that Carr was helping to dedicate 105 years ago. Ever since the statue was taken down on August 20, the question has always been whether it would go back up, and in what capacity. At a special board-of-trustees meeting on Monday, Carol Folt, the chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill, announced the board’s recommendation: Silent Sam would stay on the UNC campus, albeit in a less pronounced position.

Administrators at the university recommended that the school build a $5.3 million building on campus to house the monument, Folt announced. The new, yet-to-be-named university history center would have “state-of-the-art” security and an operating budget of $800,000 a year.

The board considered putting the statue in one of several locations across campus. Folt said she would have preferred the new center be located off campus, but state law prevented the school from doing so. The board also consulted security experts, she said, who “recommended that the solution would require us putting the artifacts ... in a single-purpose building.” Public safety alone, she continued, would prevent the university from returning the statue to its base or another outdoor location on campus.

In August, my colleague David Graham wrote that “Silent Sam, like other memorials to the Confederacy, is a monument to a treasonous rebellion against the United States, fought to preserve the enslavement of African Americans.” The fight over what to do with Silent Sam has played out in dozens of other similar conflicts around the country, as colleges and towns decide what to do with their monuments to the Confederacy.

The board’s recommendation to house Silent Sam in a museum is not unusual—and in fact, several universities have followed a similar course of action when retiring other monuments to the Confederacy and racists. But the construction of a new facility—an expensive one, at that—is unlikely to please many people on either side of the conversation.

Chancellor Folt said that though Silent Sam does not belong “at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university,” state law requires that if monuments are removed, they “shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability.” Essentially, the monument, the era of racist violence it represents, and its prominence on campus are buoyed by state law.

The UNC board of governors will have the final say on whether the recommendation is accepted at its meeting December 14. And at least one member of the board has already declared that he believes that the monument should be placed back on the perch where it lived for so many years.

It’s easy enough to remove a name, such as Carr, or a statue, such as Silent Sam, but more difficult to root out an idea—one that, at some level, continues to grip the nation. In a moment when “America is still working on the project of constructing a more equal society, and reinvesting in the experiment of a multi-ethnic democracy,” as my colleague Yoni Appelbaum wrote, the project of moving beyond America’s deeply unequal past will prove difficult.