Twenty-eight speakers had the chance to speak their minds before University leaders about whether the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam should stay or go. All but a few urged Chancellor Carol L. Folt and the University Board of Trustees to remove Silent Sam from “the front door” of the campus on McCorkle Place.
The Nov. 15 forum was the second community forum in front of the UNC Board of Trustees that has been held to seek broad input on a contentious historic issue. The first forum, held in March 2015, focused on the student-led effort to rename what was then called Saunders Hall and is now Carolina Hall.
Folt said she suggested the forum so the trustees could hear the full scope of voices on the issue. She thanked the speakers for the honesty and integrity they brought to the process in the effort to help Carolina meets its best and most cherished goals. “We said we were going to listen and that truly was our intention,” Folt said.
Board Chair Haywood D. Cochrane Jr. also thanked the audience for allowing every voice to be heard. “We appreciate everything that’s been said today – and the respect that you’ve shown each and all of our speakers,” Cochrane said.
Each speaker was given three minutes to talk. During his allotted time, William Fitzhugh Brundage, the William B. Umstead Distinguished Professor of History and chair of the history department, urged trustees to seek permission from the state legislature to move Silent Sam from its current location.
“As a historian, I am keenly aware of the need to preserve history; to advocate that the monument be moved is not to advocate the erasure of history. To the contrary, I think we should preserve Silent Sam, but as an historical artifact, not as a conspicuous, commemorative symbol,” Brundage said.
Because of Carolina’s important place in the history of American higher education, Brundage said it was overdue that Carolina have a permanent exhibit space dedicated to its history. In that “appropriate space,” Silent Sam could be a useful artifact to teach University history.
“Until then the statue occupies a privileged public space, indeed, I would say the most privileged public space on this campus. And it symbolizes an interpretation of the past that is utterly incompatible with the principles we faculty, these students and this University strive to uphold.”
Buck Goldstein, the University entrepreneur in residence and a professor of the practice in the department of economics, said the statue equates to the Confederate battle flag and urged trustees to push to remove the statue, even if doing so came with a temporary financial or political cost. “The University community will stand with you,” Goldstein said. “The courage to stand by our most fundamental values will be remembered forever.”
Among the few who disagreed with the removal of the statue was Eunice Brock, who said she had lived in Chapel Hill 50 years – long enough to join in the fight for civil rights and to witness the ongoing fight over Silent Sam. “To the students and others, I applaud your opposition to racism, but I am against the removal of Silent Sam because I do not believe it expresses racism.”
It was erected to honor the 321 University alumni who died in the Civil War, she said. “It is truly a veterans’ monument.”
When she sees Silent Sam, she sees a poor solider, she said, “not a general astride a horse, but a foot soldier holding a musket” looking into the distance and perhaps thinking of returning to his impoverished home and homeland.
Rather than move Silent Sam, Brock suggested that another symbol be erected in McCorkle Place in honor of African-American women at the time, such as abolitionist Harriett Tubman who was also part of the Underground Railroad.
Alumnus James Ward also opposed the statue’s removal.
“Most of us look at the statue today and see a memorial to our ancestors, our blood kin who died in a devastating war. Most of those people went to war reluctantly because their state had called them to fight off an invasion of the South and they answer the call of duty.
“The statue should remain because it is a memorial to these sons of the University. It should remain because it tells a part of the history of the University. It should remain because this University should not succumb to the demands of any group because it demonstrates the most and shouts the loudest. Once the tearing down starts, where does it end?”
O.J. McGhee, an IT manager in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, said black faculty, staff and students have witnessed generations of progress.
For those generations of people, “Silent Sam is a reminder of the continued pain that still consumes many of us.” And that’s because the statue has always been “more than just stone and metal that innocently memorialized Confederate soldiers.”
“Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing silent about Sam,” McGhee said. “The statue screams racism and racial supremacy.”
Read a transcript of Chancellor Carol L. Folt’s comments on this issue here.
Read a transcript of Board Chair Haywood D. Cochrane Jr.’s remarks to speakers at the Nov. 15 public hearing here.