The 100th anniversary of the dedication of “Silent Sam” on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has not surprisingly led to a renewed push to have it removed. These protests have been a regular occurrence in recent years as more people, both on and off campus, interpret both the war and historical context of the dedication through a racial lens. This time the president of the NC chapter of the NAACP is leading the charge.
“The reality is that Sam has never been silent,” state NAACP President William Barber told the crowd. “He speaks racism. He speaks hurt to women – particularly black women. And he continues just by his presence to attempt to justify the legacy of the religion of racism.”
One of those at the rally was 77-year-old Jerry Carr of Chapel Hill, a UNC student in the mid-1960s and 1970s. “I was always irked by this statue,” Carr said. “It was always said that the war wasn’t about slavery – that it was about states’ rights. And that kind of squelched any discussion about it. It’s taken a long, long time to recognize the truth – that the war was about the preservation of slavery.”
Zaina Alsous, a 2013 UNC graduate and member of the Real Silent Sam Committee that helped organize the demonstration, said the group wants people to understand “the painful parts of our history, the part of UNC’s history where we expressed violent racial discrimination, and also to be critical of where we are today.”
Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I am sympathetic to the power of these monuments and the pain that they cause certain people. I’ve been consistent in my belief that regardless of whether the monument is removed or altered in some fashion or whether an interpretive marker is added is entirely up to the relevant parties.
I have a slightly different question that is all too often ignored in this debate. Even if we agree that the monument is problematic is there a way for the University of North Carolina to properly acknowledge, even commemorate, the students who died fighting for the Confederacy? We are talking about a generation of students that walked the same grounds, sat in some of the same buildings, were challenged by some of the same ideas as students today. In short, they are part of the community.
Assuming it is possible, what would an appropriate form of commemoration look like for these former students who died in war? How can it be done in a way that acknowledges the relevant history of the war and the fact that students today share a common experience with these men? I don’t expect civilized discourse about such sensitive issues in most placed these days, unless the community effected is one of our top universities.