Out of a bottomless well of possible ideas on offer to deal with the century-old monument to racism and white superiority that has greeted students and visitors at the entrance of the University of North Carolina, trustees and administration officials at the Chapel Hill campus have agreed that the best course of action is to move the monument to a new building on campus. Specifically, a yet-to-be-constructed “university history center” which, according to reports, will cost $5.3 million to build as well as “$800,000 in annual operating costs,” owing in part to it’s “state of the art security.”
University officials met Monday, nearly four months after demonstrators ripped the monument known as Silent Sam from its moorings, to announce this cowardly plan that will house and protect the controversial statue.
“We do want to get this right and we believe we have,” UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said at the start of the meeting, right before the university’s board of trustees voted for the plan.
No, the university didn’t get it right. In fact, the adminstration chose the second-worst alternative. Remounting the statue on its original pedestal in the green space on McCorkle Place would have been the only worse choice.
While some community and campus groups — including black faculty members, student government leaders and some trustees — had called for the permanent removal of the statue from the campus, Folt said the campus was obligated to follow a 2015 state law that required the monument to be resurrected on campus.
Two months ago, in anticipation of the trustee’s decision, the university’s Faculty Council passed a resolution calling for the permanent removal of the statue. “Returning the statue to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus would reaffirm the values of white supremacy that motivated its original installation,” the faculty resolution said. “Moreover, to do so would undermine the physical security of all members of our community.”
Campus officials opted against placing the statue back out in the public space, fearing it would continue to be a source of community wide friction, as well as a potential public safety hazard.
The decision to find an alternative, on-campus location — and worse yet, erect an expensive, new building for Silent Sam — does nothing to quell the anger, hurt, and outrage of those who oppose the state’s flagship university’s embrace of a racist monument. It has taken a bad situation and made it more costly.
Of the 13 members on the board, two members — Allie Ray McCullen, a realtor from Clinton, North Carolina, and UNC Student Body President Savannah Putnam — voted against the plan, demonstrating the moral courage that went largely ignored by a majority of the trustees. Putnam told the The Daily Tar Heel, the student-run campus newspaper, that she opposed the statue being anywhere on campus because Silent Sam “does not belong” there and represents an affront to students attending the university.
Putnam is clear-eyed — and courageous.
Silent Sam is a uniquely vile monument on one of the South’s most progressive universities. The monument was one of many Confederate memorials commissioned across the South by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to honor the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and slavery. At its 1913 dedication, during commencement celebrations, Confederate Civil War veteran Julian Carr praised the statue as a reminder of the young men who left the university to fight as saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” In his remarks, retained by the university archives, Carr described how the statue would stand in the memory of 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.
Now, university trustees want to house that memorial in its own special house. In effect, UNC administration officials and trustees are using a modern-day, reactionary law to protect racist monuments across a state that has more than 200 Civil War statues, markers, and monuments.
There is little doubt that the correct decision would have been for the university officials and its trustees to reject replacing Silent Sam on campus and to instead mount a forceful public challenge to the very North Carolina state law that prevents monuments from being moved off state property. That law was passed by a GOP-led legislature fully cognizant of nationwide efforts to remove Confederate memorials after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine black worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina church.
Naturally, doing the morally appropriate thing would have gone against white supremacy’s go-along-to-get-along attitude that has long held sway over southern politics. Moreover, it would have required bold leadership to challenge this entrenched racist status quo.
The university’s plan calls for a four-pronged approach to reinstating the monument, including the restoration of the monument, the development of a historical contextualization for its continued existence, the creation of a university history and education center, and the contruction of a new entrance to the university in the spot where Silent Sam formerly stood.
The final decision rests with the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s university system. Some members of that board have expressed a strong desire that Silent Sam be returned to its pedestal. As of now, the ultimate outcome continues to be in doubt.
But if this new building is ever constructed, it will become as much of a racist sore on the UNC campus, and the focal point of the same sort of protests that have been held at the statue’s original statute. In the end it all demonstrates the extent to which the university will expend valuable resources to enclose the memorial and maintain its upkeep — all to honor the Lost Cause and provide a salve for the traitorous feelings of white supremacists.