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UNC: A community reckoning with its history


In 1965, UNC student Al Ribak wrote a letter [2] to the editors of the Daily Tar Heel entitled, “Silent Sam Should Leave.” Fifty-three years later, Silent Sam is gone – brought down by over 250 UNC students, alumni, and community activists.

It was just a year ago that a similar sight could be seen in Durham, where protesters brought down the Confederate monument in downtown Durham shortly after the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

These statues glorify and commemorate a part of our history (and present) that celebrates white supremacy. Look no further than this quote [3] from Julian Carr during the dedication of Silent Sam: “…Take note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race … their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”

Carr said this right before telling a horrifying story of beating a “negro” woman less than a hundred yards away from the statue for “insulting” a white woman.

White supremacy is what this Confederate monument represented on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill and across this nation.

For how much time has gone into memorializing and associating these monuments with the Civil War, it’s almost laughable to think that even Robert E. Lee believed Confederate monuments should not be erected in the South. [4]

The Southern Poverty Law Center found that an overwhelming percentage [5] of these monuments were erected decades after the Civil War ended during the Jim Crow era and in response to the Civil Rights Movement. If this monument doesn’t represent white supremacy, why were they consistently erected in response to Black people (and other historically marginalized people) making progress in this country?

Many people believe removing the monument at UNC is erasing history. We can remember our dark history in museums, classrooms and through storytelling. They do not deserve to stand on a pedestal in the middle of our university. That’s what the existing Carolina Hall [6] is for – a classroom building at UNC dedicated to learning from our gruesome past.

We are a community reckoning with that gruesome history. And for more than 50 years, students have attempted to work within the institution to have this statue removed.

In 1971 [2], The Black Student Movement and the Afro-American Society of Chapel Hill High held a protest at Silent Sam in memory of James Cates, a young black man murdered in the Pit by members of a white motorcycle gang.

Between the 1970s and 2000s [2], gatherings, debates, and letters to the Daily Tar Heel centered around Silent Sam and the historic inequities plaguing students of color.

In 2011 [2], the Real Silent Sam Coalition was founded by students, faculty, staff, and community members to bring historical accuracy to the physical and mental landscapes at UNC-Chapel Hill and our surrounding communities.

Today’s student and community have continued to build on the work of those before them.

The UNC Undergraduate Executive Branc [7]h, the Graduate and Professional Student Federation [8], and the Chapel Hill Town Council [9] have long asked for the removal and relocation of the statue.

This past year [10], 17 professors at UNC attempted to lend their power to the cause and used their tenure to request the removal of the statue. They were ignored.

UNC students and activists eventually ran out of legal options when the NC General Assembly moved to protect these statues [11] by eliminating means of removal.

Gov. Roy Cooper attempted to give the school administrators a way to remove the statue, citing a public safety loophole [12] in the law. They told him he was wrong and Silent Sam endured.

So what could the students do then? What do you do after 50 years of trying to take one statue down?

Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that activists finally acted and sought justice by other means.

Instead of speaking poorly of students who have actively attempted to engage administration, to no avail, maybe we should look at the institutions that have ignored decades of requests.

[13]Ebony West is a 2018 graduate of the UNC Master of Public Administration program. She currently resides in Raleigh and serves on the Young Democrats of North Carolina board.