So many colleges and universities have them. A monument that has been on the campus as long as anyone can remember, located in a prominent place that people pass by each day, and often with a silly, if somewhat offensive legend surrounding them. “General ABC will get off his horse the day a virgin graduates from XYZ University.” Or in the case of the monument currently under scrutiny at UNC Chapel Hill, “Silent Sam will fire his gun the day a virgin graduates from UNC.” For years, these legends were all I could tell you about these monuments on the campuses where I’ve been a student or faculty member. I’ve been around such monuments all my life; many have their roots in the confederacy.
Several years ago, having worked at UNC for quite awhile, my views on monuments began to change. Students and others on our campus were calling for the statue known as Silent Sam to come down. They asserted that it was a symbol of white supremacy and an object of oppression. At first, it was hard for me to muster strong feelings either way. I had no big stake in the statue staying up. I did not feel it was an important representation of my values or “southern heritage.” It was a big statue with a stupid legend attached to it that was passed down from first year class to first year class. Statue up, statue down, whatever – not my issue. Such is white privilege. Nothing in the culture forced me to think about what Silent Sam might mean to people of color in my institution. I had the choice to think about it or not, take a stand or not because the confederacy and what it stood for, a state’s right to enslave black Americans, never felt threatening to me. The confederacy was something for the history books, a question on test, something people I knew romanticized, but not a threat to my very humanity.
However, the student voices were loud. My colleagues were having conversations. There were articles in the newspaper, op-eds, letters to the editor. Those voices pushed me to engage, asked that I listen: listen to how shocked colleagues from other parts of the country were to come to UNC and find a monument to the confederacy at the symbolic “front door” of the University, to listen to how students of color felt walking past Silent Sam every day. For them, Sam was not a statue with a silly legend attached. He was a visceral symbol of hatred and exclusion, something that undermined their ability to trust the institution where they worked and studied. Finally, I learned the Silent Sam’s history. The plaque attached to him described him as a memorial to UNC students who died during the civil war. However he was not erected until 1913 – nearly fifty years after the civil war. The confederate dead had done fine without him until that point. Why was he needed then?
The answer is in the dedication speech made by one Julian Shakespeare Carr, a local businessman of the time. Here’s a link to the dedication speech. Look at pages 9B and 10 in particular. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf. This speech is evidence that demands a verdict. The speech references saving the “Anglo-Saxon race.” The speaker proudly describes himself “horse-whipping” another human being of African descent and sleeping well afterwards. Though couched in tributes to young men who died in battle for a “glorious cause” and some “all’s well that ends well” language regarding the civil war’s outcome, the violence and values described in the speech churn the stomach. As part of a wider white supremacy movement that was active in the early 1900’s, Sam’s installation sent a hateful message that is and was antithetical to the Lux/Libertas, (light and liberty) creed that UNC holds dear. Sam’s message echoes even if many of us don’t have ears to hear it. He should come down, not because his time has passed, but because he never should have been there to begin with.
All views stated here are my own.