UNC-Chapel Hill Rallies Against Board Decision to Reinstate Confederate Monument 'Silent Sam'

“If we don’t get no justice, then you don’t get no peace.” This is one of the many chants that rang out in the night at UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday.

For over two hours, students and community members gathered to protest the university’s decision to reinstate Silent Sam, a Confederate monument that’s been a source of heated controversy for years now.

On August 28, 2018, the UNC-CH Board of Trustees, along with Chancellor Carol Folt, were tasked with devising a plan for the statue’s fate. This assignment was a response to the results of a protest eight days prior, where the statue was knocked down off its pedestal.

The BOT approved a four-part proposal for the monument on Monday morning, with a 12-2 vote. The two members who voted against the proposal were UNC-CH Student Body President Savannah Putnam and board member Allie Ray McCullen. The proposal includes a plan to build a University History and Education Center in what is known as Odum Village, a former student family housing site that is scheduled for demolition. The center is projected to cost $5.3 million to build, plus $800 thousand annually to maintain.

It’s important to note that 13 of the 14 board members are white, and 10 of those 13 are middle-aged men. The lack of young people of color, or women of color more specifically, on this board is apparent. Having a more diverse sample of opinions may have changed the entire outcome of Monday’s meeting.

However, as Secretary Bill Keyes mentioned, the UNC Board of Governors did not allow the BOT much room to do anything significant with the statue. It was stipulated that the proposed plan had to be a “lawful and lasting path” that “preserves the monument and history.” It seems that destroying it, as many students and community members want, was never in the cards.​

Ioan Tran, 23, is one of those community members. Tran, a community organizer and activist from Durham, North Carolina, told Her Campus they’d like to “Put Silent Sam in an incinerator, and let every black person and person of color in the town of Chapel Hill and on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus press that button to light that shit on fire.”

Tran suggested the university should use the money it’s spending on the Education Center to support black student organizers on campus. They said this funding would allow black students to implement their own community surveying process, because “It shouldn’t be up to the chancellor and this university to decide [what happens to Silent Sam].”

Other community members focused on fostering solidarity with black students.

Aman Aberra, 25, is a Biomedical Engineering PhD student at Duke University. He attended the protest with Duke Students for Justice in Palestine and Demilitarize Durham2Palestine, to support affected UNC-CH students.

“I think showing solidarity in the streets is really important to express what the masses feel on these issues … I think most people saw from the turnout that there are a lot of us that are in opposition to not only the idea of putting up a Confederate statue, but now the idea of putting it up in some kind of protected sanctuary or safe space,” Aberra told Her Campus.

The university may not be listening, but many in the Triangle are. With such broad, passionate community support behind them, UNC-CH students and faculty have spoken out en masse against the monument’s reinstatement.

Alexis Hinnant, 21, is a Communications major and member of the Black Student Movement at UNC-CH.

She told Her Campus that the university’s attempt to “contextualize” the monument through the Education Center will likely just further its complacency towards racism, rather than being honest about the harm it has and continues to cause: “I want her [Folt] to know that it’s traumatic to have to walk through there [McCorkle Place, where the statue previously stood]. My own personal story [is] of not feeling safe, and like UNC is not for me, despite all the ads and pamphlets that we make to make it seem like UNC is for everyone.”

The BSM echoed these concerns in a statement released on Monday, saying “By returning this monument that glorifies the Confederacy and white supremacy to our campus, our University’s leaders are reaffirming the racist beliefs and ideals that led to its erection in 1913.”

In condemning UNC-CH’s explanation that the plan is intended to prevent violence and “maintain order [emphasis theirs],” the BSM cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham jail.

“...the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice [emphasis theirs]; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

In line with this prioritization of order, the proposal includes a plan to create a 40-person “mobile force” of police, which will cost $2 million annually, plus an initial $500 thousand in equipment costs. 

UNC-CH Black Faculty released a statement on September 6, urging university officials to permanently remove the monument. The statement was written by 54 black faculty members, and cosigned by over 400 non-black faculty members in support: “To reinstall the Confederate monument to any location on UNC’s campus is to herald for the nation and for the world that UNC is not a welcoming place for Black people. … A symbol of racism, violence, and white supremacy has no place on our 21st century campus often called the ‘University of the People.’”

Concerned community members believe the monument is a consistent source of danger for students, from both police and and white supremacist organizations.

During Monday night’s protest, police officers in riot gear pushed against barricades and ripped signs out of protester’s hands, just over three months after pepper-spraying students and ushering neo-Nazis from the pro-Confederate hate group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County safely past the barrier surrounding the statue’s pedestal.

Silent Sam’s history is not all that complicated.  It is, as many have pointed out, rooted in white supremacy and violence against African-Americans. At the monument’s dedication in 1913, Julian Carr proudly recounted how he whipped a black woman 100 yards from the statue’s pedestal, in front of a garrison of 100 soldiers.

Building a “shrine,” as many have called it, to this monument makes it clear to many students that UNC-CH isn't considering its effect on the well-being and safety of its black students. 

The latest protest ended with the crowd of about 300 holding hands and chanting a poem by Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Army.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”