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.
Local officials want to remove Confederate monuments—but state officials won’t let them
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.