The Dramatic Fall of Silent Sam, UNC’s Confederate Monument

Protesters toppled the 1913 statue Monday night, making it the latest Civil War memorial to be removed either by government or by demonstrators acting on their own.

Silent Sam
Police stand guard after Silent Sam was toppled at the University of North Carolina on Monday. (Gerry Broome / AP)

DURHAM, N.C.—On June 2, 1913, Julian Shakespeare Carr spoke at the dedication of a statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater. Carr had served in the Confederate army as a lowly private, but upon returning from the war he had made several fortunes in tobacco, textiles, and banking, and affected the title “General” for his leadership of the United Confederate Veterans.

In addition to being an accomplished businessman, Carr was a virulent racist. In his speech that day, he recalled, “One hundred yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers.”

Carr rhapsodized that the statue of a rebel soldier kept alive the aims of the Confederacy. “The cause for which they fought is not lost, never can be, never will be lost while it is enshrined in the hearts of the people of the South, especially the hearts of the dear, loyal, patriotic women, who, like so many Vestal Virgins (God’s name be praised), keep the fires lighted upon the Altars,” Carr said.

The statue became known as Silent Sam, because he carried no ammunition box, and stood as a landmark on UNC’s campus, facing onto Franklin Street, Chapel Hill’s main drag. Silent Sam was occasionally the subject of controversy and protests, but he remained as imperturbably taciturn and unmoving as he had been while Carr spoke.

On Monday night, that changed. Sam is still silent, but he no longer stands sentinel, after a crowd of protesters pulled him from his plinth.

The dramatic toppling comes almost exactly a year after protesters in nearby Durham, inspired by the violent white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, pulled down a Confederate monument that stood in front of the old Durham County courthouse. (Shortly after Silent Sam came down, someone placed on it a cap bearing the slogan Do it like Durham, adopted after the toppling.) Like that action, the toppling of Silent Sam is sure to open debates about the legacy of the Confederacy, the propriety of Confederate monuments, the dangers of mob action, and among whom and how the fate of such statues should be divided.

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. (Later attempts to cloak the rebellion in the clothing of states’ rights and individual freedom are debunked by the words the states and their leaders used when they seceded.) Moreover, many of the monuments were raised in two big waves, one around the turn of the 20th century and again in the 1950s and ’60s—during the post-Reconstruction enactment of harsh segregation laws, and then when the civil-rights movement was threatening to dismantle those laws. The Confederate monuments were an expression of white supremacy—sometimes implicitly, and other times, as in Carr’s speech, explicitly.

Ever since the Durham statue came down, there had been discussion about removing Silent Sam, as well as threats of just this type of guerrilla action. Many factions at UNC, including the history department, supported the statue’s removal. So did Chapel Hill’s mayor. Chancellor Carol Folt, the university’s top official, voiced support for moving Silent Sam. She also worried that the statue had become a safety concern.

Silent Sam was a peculiar artifact in Chapel Hill, which, like Charlottesville, is a picturesque, liberal college town. Even as Donald Trump won North Carolina in the 2016 election, Orange County, home to Chapel Hill, voted 73 percent for Hillary Clinton. The university’s student body is 10 percent African American; though many of the state’s segregationist leaders attended UNC, its most famous alumnus these days is Michael Jordan. In 2005, the university erected an Unsung Founders Memorial, dedicated to “the people of color bound and free who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today,” near Silent Sam.

But the university was handcuffed from removing or relocating Silent Sam himself by a 2015 law, passed by the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly, that bars the removal of historical statutes. The law was one of several passed by state legislatures in the South in recent years, intended to prevent the removal of Confederate monuments. Growing antipathy to Confederate monuments, coupled with increasingly progressive leadership in many urban areas of the South, has meant a growing number of statues have come down, in cities from Memphis to New Orleans. The march in Charlottesville came after a push by local authorities to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Folt was further hemmed in by UNC’s increasingly precarious position. Conservatives in North Carolina have long viewed the university as a den of seditious liberalism, and in recent years have taken a series of steps to stifle parts of the university they view as leftist, including the Center for Civil Rights and a poverty center led by a frequent critic of GOP politicians. This meant any move Folt made could bring particular scrutiny not just for her, but for the university.

Nonetheless, many members of the university community felt Folt was not nearly forceful enough in dealing with a symbol of white supremacy in the center of campus. She also increased police presence guarding the statue after threats were made against it. (The News & Observer reported that the total security tab was nearly $400,000.) When Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, concluded that UNC could remove Silent Sam on security grounds, Folt rejected the governor’s interpretation of the law, though she did ask Cooper to petition a state commission that oversees monuments for its removal.

Meanwhile, protests and opposition to Silent Sam continued to grow. In April, the graduate student Maya Little was arrested after she defaced the statue with blood and red paint. Referring to suggestions that the school help mitigate the damage of Silent Sam by adding historical context, Little said she was adding her own context. “Silent Sam is violence; Silent Sam is the genocide of black people; Silent Sam is antithetical to our right to exist,” Little wrote in a letter to Folt. “You should see him the way that we do, at the forefront of our campus covered in our blood.”

The lawyer Hampton Dellinger also threatened to sue the university for Silent Sam’s removal, arguing that the statue constituted a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Legal experts I spoke with last fall said the draft lawsuit offered an intriguing but novel interpretation of the law, and might be difficult to win.)

That’s where things were Monday evening, when a march in solidarity with Little was scheduled for the day before classes began at UNC. The atmosphere was tense, with Confederate sympathizers present, according to The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper. There was also a substantial complement of police. It was not immediately clear how the protesters had managed to tear the statue down despite the security, but witnesses told The Daily Tar Heel that Silent Sam fell in mere seconds after being tugged with ropes.

This is similar to what happened in Durham, where, to demonstrators’ surprise, the statue fell quickly and crumpled. The next steps will likely echo events in Durham, too. There will be a vocal contingent that believes the statue should have been left. But there will also be a split between two factions that oppose the statue. Some will contend that mob action like what happened Monday is never appropriate, no matter how heinous the offending statue, and that the process is sacrosanct. In a statement Monday night, Cooper’s office said, “The Governor understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities."

Their opponents will retort that such sentiments are precious but pointless: It wouldn’t have mattered whether 100 percent of the university community, or the town of Chapel Hill, supported removal, because the legislature, made up mostly of people from elsewhere in the state and elected on a gerrymandered map, had blocked any chance at removing Silent Sam.

There will be more more mundane questions, too. Who will be punished, and how, for the statue’s toppling? (Nine people were charged in the Durham toppling; in February, all nine were acquitted or had charges dropped.) What will become of Silent Sam? His plinth remains, vandalized and empty, on campus. It’s unclear what damage was done to the statue in its fall, but it did not crumple like the cheaply made Durham monument.

Assuming the statue is not ruined, officials will face a wrenching decision about what to do with it. The state law bars removal, but it makes no provisions for replacing a damaged monument. Authorities will be loath to put back a statue that memorializes white supremacy and has already caused chaos once. Yet there will also be great pressure to restore the statue. Chapel Hill’s status as home to the flagship state university means there will likely be greater scrutiny from across the state than there was in Durham, where the plinth remains empty one year later.

Regardless of Silent Sam’s ultimate fate, his toppling represents yet another defeat for the Lost Cause that Carr celebrated. “Nowhere in all the South was the approaching conflict more keenly scented than in the universities and colleges, and the gallant boys, then pursuing their studies, lost no time in preparing themselves for the hour when the call should come,” Carr said. On Monday, students and faculty of the same school decided that the statue he had helped raise had to come down.