The rise and fall of Silent Sam

Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.
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Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.
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UNC library board says Silent Sam doesn’t belong in Wilson or any of its libraries

By Jane Stancill

jstancill@newsobserver.com

September 04, 2018 06:09 PM

CHAPEL HILL

As UNC-Chapel Hill leaders begin the process of scouting an alternative location for the toppled Silent Sam Confederate statue, an obvious question has emerged: who will take it?

Already, the Administrative Board of the Library has written to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Robert Blouin, pointing out problems with the idea of placing the 8-foot Confederate statue in Wilson Library, or in any university library.

Rumors had circulated that Wilson, which houses special collections and other artifacts of North Carolina and Southern history, could be a possible site for the controversial statue.

The administrative board, made up of elected faculty and appointed library staff, wrote that Silent Sam would have a detrimental effect on the library’s inclusive environment and could carry a fire risk to the priceless artifacts and papers housed within the building.

“Relocating this statue into one of UNC’s libraries would inhibit their fundamental mission of ‘research, teaching, learning and public service for the campus community, state, nation and world’ and create an unsafe and untenable environment for our students and staff,” the administrative board’s letter said.

The statue’s empty pedestal on McCorkle Place, at a main gateway to campus, has been the site of several tense protests and bitter clashes since the statue was pulled down on Aug. 20.

Pro-Silent Sam demonstrators were escorted by police on Thursday to a barricaded area near the base of where Silent Sam stood for a vigil. Protesters held a dance party and the two groups taunted each other. Police used pepper spray throughout.

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Putting the object into the library would “alter the learning environment of that space and those who work to support it,” the board’s letter said.

Mark Crescenzi, a professor of political science who chairs the board, said he has no indication that Folt had planned to place the statue in a UNC library building. But he said the board members wanted to act quickly to raise their concerns.

Beyond the question of the statue’s effect on the learning environment, Crescenzi said the infrastructure in Wilson Library is not able to handle protests and counter-protests that could accompany Silent Sam. Sprinkler systems in Wilson are not up to code as it is now, Crescenzi said, and any time the building is open there is a fire official patrolling the premises.

“We could have a disaster on our hands in terms of losing some valuable artifacts,” Crescenzi said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s a simple logistical concern that I wanted to make sure was brought up to the people making the decision of where the statue goes.”

The board’s letter said safeguarding the statue in the library would be “a financially impracticable challenge” to the security of Wilson’s “irreplaceable, world renowned collections.”

During the weekend, the national museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, went up in flames, destroying millions of artifacts and illustrating the danger fire poses to historic objects.

Crescenzi said librarians are passionate about protecting the First Amendment, and Wilson Library has preserved and archived papers “that might be considered offensive or distasteful,” according to the letter. However, the board argued, the presence of Silent Sam could inhibit access of people to the library’s collections.

The board recommended the statue go to a location such as the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh, which would presumably have the necessary security to handle it.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and the campus Board of Trustees have been directed to develop a “lawful and lasting” plan to preserve the Silent Sam Confederate monument according to a resolution passed by the UNC system’s Board of Governors.

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The activist group Move Silent Sam has said there is no location on the UNC campus that is appropriate for the Confederate statue. “There is no site on our campus for this racist relic,” the group tweeted Tuesday, echoing a statement it had provided to the online publication Inside Higher Ed.

Last week, Folt issued a statement to the community saying she wanted to find a new home for Silent Sam on campus.

“Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university,” Folt wrote. “We want to provide opportunities for our students and the broader community to reflect upon and learn from that history. Wide consultation, and lots of listening on campus and beyond, are necessary if we are to move toward peace and healing.”

Folt and the board of trustees have until Nov. 15 to present a plan for the statue’s future to the UNC board of governors. It’s unclear whether the system governing board will go along with that plan.

The chairman of the board of governors, Harry Smith, called Folt’s statement Friday “hasty,” because of her “strong views and opinions,” he said.

Folt called the monument, displayed in McCorkle Place, “extremely divisive and a threat to public safety, and the day-to-day mission of the University.”

She also acknowledged the painful history behind the statue’s founding in 1913 during the Jim Crow era.

“More fundamentally, the disputes around the monument are about deeply rooted and profound struggles of race, inclusion, history and honor that our entire country needs to resolve,” the chancellor said.

She also acknowledged, “At the same time, we also hear daily from our community, citizens from across North Carolina and the country, who have always seen the statue as a memorial to fallen soldiers, many of them family members. I hope we can agree that there is a difference between those who commemorate their fallen and people who want a restoration of white rule. Reconciliation of our past and our present requires us to reach deep into our hearts and across the state to the people we serve.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill