Silent Sam and UNC: A tortured misunderstanding between preserving history and venerating hateful ideology

Silent Sam and UNC: A tortured misunderstanding between preserving history and venerating hateful ideology

Image: Creative Commons

Earlier this week, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees (BoT) began plans to erect a statue dedicated to white supremacy. This is not a kind characterization of events, but it is an accurate one. A characterization that failed to permeate the decision-making process, and with horrifying consequence.

It was never about history

No one debates the importance of the Confederacy in American history. However, universities across the country successfully teach this history absent monuments dedicated to white supremacy. Proponents of Silent Sam claim the statue memorializes students who fought for the Confederacy. The dubious nature of celebrating literal traitors to the United States aside, it is a thinly-veiled attempt to hide the statue’s true nature. It was during the statue’s unveiling — simply referred to then as the “Confederate Memorial” – that UNC Trustee David Carr infamously spoke about white supremacy and boasted of assaulting a Black woman.

Even a genuine belief that the Chapel Hill campus requires physical reminders of the Civil War (as if it could be forgotten) does not justify Silent Sam’s existence. The campus is littered with reminders that it was not a space built for Black students, despite being built by Black bodies. Cameron Avenue is named after yet another infamous UNC trustee who was also North Carolina’s largest slaveholder. It is, in fact, the ubiquitous nature of these reminders that motivated the state legislature’s actions preventing their removal, a knee-jerk reaction to the renaming of what was then Saunders Hall.

The campus cannot entirely lay the blame at the feet of the legislature, however. Inexplicably, the BoT recognized the problem of honoring Saunders while simultaneously preventing similar remedies across campus for 16 years. These actions reveal a tortured misunderstanding between preserving history and venerating hateful ideology. In its report, the BoT proves the point as it goes so far as to equate erecting Silent Sam along with the preservation of Unsung Founders Memorial, artwork that (is intended to) honor the slaves who built this campus.

When the BoT and others invoke these arguments about teaching history, they consistently fail to consult faculty, the very group of people who have expertise both in education and the subject matter. If they had, they would have known immediately that Silent Sam cannot preserve history or function as a teaching tool when its presence is antithetical to the university’s educational mission.

The process presaged the result

 The BoT report lists five broad domains that went into its evaluative process. Fourth in the list –“Campus Community and Public Input” — seems to actually occupy that level of importance. The conflation of diverse groups across campus, to say nothing of communities external to the campus, was jarring in how it so effectively reduced critical constituencies to ancillary voices. It is hard to read the BoT report and think of a scenario in which any amount of passionate and well-reasoned consensus of the campus community would have altered this decision.

It is no accident that the proposed solution was framed to be from the beginning as the one comfortably in the middle. We have a dangerous tendency in our society to favor the middle, the moderate, the bipartisan, as inherently virtuous. Sometimes it is, but by coincidence and by not design. The halfway point between justice and injustice is not justice. Presuming that if we just find the middle we have found our answer is nothing more than a form of intellectual malaise that frees us from wrestling with difficult but important concerns.

This framing is crucial because systems that perpetuate oppression are effective precisely because they are seen as normative. They benefit from the invisible privilege of framing the discussion from start to end. Here the polar options were to put the statue back on its pedestal or to move it off campus. The last two sentences of the last appendix of the report that refer to campus input:

“Most people either want the Monument permanently removed or moved to an alternate location either off campus or within a contextualized setting on campus. Few people (particularly faculty, staff and students) want the Monument restored to its original location.”

Campus input was used to grant legitimacy to the BoT recommendation by packaging responses in a manner that, oddly enough, treats the creation of a shrine to Silent Sam as little more than a shade different from removing it entirely. The appropriate and just option was always outside of these: destroy the statue.

But that was never considered or legitimized as a possible course of action. This in turn made what should have been the bare minimum – removing this harmful statue from campus – seem far more revolutionary than it ever was. It was the least we should have done.

Perhaps what doomed this process more than anything was the zeal with which the report approaches the issue as a paramilitary exercise. The “safety” of the statue was of greater concern than the well-being of people engaged in lawful protest. The psychological harm caused to Black students for example is not once considered within the context of safety.

Harm instead is defined as unruly protest by enemy combatants in a peculiar scenario in which a monument to racism must be saved from… people who think racism is bad. The report even states they don’t trust Carrboro police to “defend the Monument,” and have reservations about the Chapel Hill Police as well, though they begrudgingly admit they instead “have been willing to provide assistance to protect people.” The report hilariously seems to imply it is the local police forces in this scenario who have reversed priorities.

And perhaps the incredulous language which drives the point home is when the report states, “Threats and calls for violent action on social media sites on all sides have increased dramatically.” Though we are incredibly fortunate to have avoided repeating the tragedy in Charlottesville, I should hope UNC would be more thoughtful about invoking “all sides.”

Harm to campus community

Of notable frustration in the report is the shockingly absent attention given to the harm that Silent Sam’s continued presence has on members of the campus community, especially its Black and minority students, staff, and faculty. Statements both before and after the BoT decision from UNC’s Black faculty, the Faculty Council, the Senate of the Undergraduate Student Government, the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, and the Black Student Movement highlight but a few of the core constituencies actively harmed by the statue’s presence, yet this is seemingly beyond the concern of the BoT report.

The widespread media coverage of the BoT decision will also have negative implications for UNC. One colleague suggested we replace the Old Well with Silent Sam as the “enduring symbol.” It seemed a half-serious suggestion at the time, but in the aftermath of this report it seems strangely appropriate. Across campus there are exceptional and dedicated people dedicated to the mission of diversity and inclusion whose efforts will be severely crippled, by the very BoT charged with facilitating campus excellence.

UNC wrestles with keeping tuition low and quality of education high. Adding the additional cost of the $5.3 million shrine, plus an additional $800,000 annually in upkeep, is indefensible. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine better uses for this money. (But if you’d like some ideas, the statement from the Black Student Movement provides some excellent suggestions.)

Law, order, and justice

It is not coincidence that proponents of Silent Sam hide behind the law to defend their position. The defense is intended to be the ultimate bulwark, ending all conversation related to the statue and its racist legacy.

History is similarly invoked when convenient to the defenders of the statue. Yet it is conspicuously absent whenever we fail to acknowledge the same legal system that we’re to follow is the one that allowed slavery to flourish. The system which allows the legacy of slavery to flourish today through policies that touch issues ranging from residential segregation, to health care access, and to voting rights. The system, which props up a statue that celebrates the historical wellspring of contemporary racism. To hide behind this system as the arbiter of Silent Sam’s fate is comically inappropriate. As Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Disobeying a law is an uncomfortable exercise to be sure. We fear rewarding “bad behavior.” But I can’t help but see the current law as doing nothing but already rewarding injustice. Physical manifestations of white supremacy are sacred, encased within a multi-million dollar shrine. If this entire spectacle were truly about preserving history, neither the state legislature nor the BoT would have enacted policies that prohibited alternative ways of memorializing history. What a small but powerful element towards restorative justice it could be to replace Silent Sam with a monument to the woman Carr so proudly assaulted.

I maintain a small hope that the political leaders of North Carolina and UNC will awaken to their moral commitments. History has never been kind to those who hid behind the law as they were complicit in wrongdoing. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bemoaned “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”

UNC needs to decide: is “Lux Libertas” in service of order, or in service of justice?

A colleague recently reminded me that monuments are meant to inspire. They should provide us with goals and ambitions to aspire towards that better ourselves and our communities. Silent Sam does none of those things. It oppresses, harms, divides, weakens, distracts, and diminishes us. UNC deserves better from our monuments, and our leadership.


Dr. Derrick Matthews is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.