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UNC’s ‘Silent Sam’ torn down by student protesters

The monument's removal is the latest flashpoint between opponents and proponents of white supremacy.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - AUGUST 22:  Demonstrators rally for the removal of a Confederate statue coined Silent Sam on the campus of the University of Chapel Hill on August 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NC - AUGUST 22: Demonstrators rally for the removal of a Confederate statue coined Silent Sam on the campus of the University of Chapel Hill on August 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

On the eve of first day of classes, a group of mostly protesting students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled the statue of Silent Sam, the Confederate monument that’s stood at the entrance to campus since 1913 as a memorial to “white supremacy.”

According to mainstream and social media reports, a planned demonstration to protest the statue began about 7 p.m. and swelled to an estimated crowd of 250 students, faculty, and community residents who exchanged shouts with a group of the monument’s supporters. At about 9:30 p.m., with a heavy police presence looking on, some among the anti-statue demonstrators revealed rope that had been hidden in their banners and wrapped it around the statue. Witnesses told The Daily Tar Heel, an independent, student-led newspaper that covers the university, that it took about 10 seconds for the monument to plummet from its pedestal.

“I feel liberated — like I’m part of something big,” said first-year student Natalia Walker. “It’s literally my fourth day here. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever been apart of in my life just activist-wise. All of these people coming together for this one sole purpose and actually getting it done was the best part.”

University officials reacted relatively stoically, calling the downing of the Silent Sam “unlawful and dangerous,” but noting the issue surrounding the monument has long frustrated campus, community, and state leaders.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper offered some indication as to the reaction of state official to the toppling of the monument. In a statement release shortly after the campus activity, Cooper said he understood that “many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.”

In the past, state officials have expressed reluctance to remove the statue, adding confusion and concern about how best to deal with hot-button, racial issues swirling around Confederate memorials dotting the state’s public areas.

The downing of Silent Sam is the latest turn of events amid decades of protests over its presence on McCorkle Place, a verdant quadrant just off Franklin Street at the northern-most entrance to the campus. The statue, one of many similar monuments erected across the South by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, featured an unnamed, young, and white male soldier carrying a long rifle and holding a steady north-facing gaze as if guarding for the return of Union troops.

At its 1913 dedication, which took place during commencement, Confederate Civil War veteran Julian Carr commemorated the statue as a memorial to white students who left the campus in their serve as saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”  In his remarks, retained by the university archives, Carr described how Silent Sam would stand in the memory of white men, like himself, who had fought for the Confederacy:

One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.

While campus and community opposition to Silent Sam has flared frequently since it was erected, the protests have grown more heated and intense in recent years, notably since national and international attention focused on anti-Confederate symbolism following a church shooting at Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In that deadly incident, gunman Dylann Roof, who had expressed support for white supremacy and brandished Confederate memorabilia, was convicted and sentenced to death for nine deaths conducted during a Bible study session.

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In the months following the Charleston massacre, state legislatures reviewed their use of Confederate symbolism with many states and municipalities deciding to remove statues and memorials from public view. Last year, a violent protest over Confederate symbols in Charlottesville, Virginia — near the University of Virginia campus — led to one death and sparked renewed student and community opposition at UNC, including a protest at the start of the school year and promises by students and supportive faculty to press for Silent Sam’s removal.

But university officials took no action toward taking down the memorial, fearing reprisals from the state legislature which had passed a law following the Charleston shooting forbidding the altering or removal of Confederate monuments from state property.

Apparently, the students and community activists took up the matter on their own, starting a new academic year by ripping Silent Sam from its moorings and chanting in celebration.