It’s unfortunate that the administration at UNC-Chapel Hill did not take steps to defuse the controversy around their Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” much earlier. Now they are in a bit of a pickle with students and others having removed the statue last week, followed by smaller demonstrations, and a law that appears to give the university 90 days to return it to campus.
Yesterday Chancellor Folt released a statement indicating that she would like to see the statue returned to campus to be used for educational purposes:
Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university. We want to provide opportunities for our students and the broader community to reflect upon and learn from that history.
We are not talking about the center of a town or city, where forms of interpretation such as historical markers may be deemed insufficient to defuse their meaning for some residents. We are talking about an educational community.
There is a model for the school to consider. Back in 2015 the University of Texas at Austin removed a number of Confederate monuments from campus, including Jefferson Davis. He now stands in the Briscoe Center for American History on campus, where the statue can be properly interpreted:
Davis’s arrival at the Briscoe is part of a major relaunch of the center. In the fall of 2015, the center closed its public spaces for an 18-month renovation that updated and expanded the reading room and added 4,000 square feet of new exhibit space. When the center reopened earlier this month, the general public was able to view its inaugural exhibit, “Exploring the American South,” which pairs well with the Davis statue exhibit, “From Commemoration to Education.” A large label with the heading “#DavisMustFall” affixed to the wall to the right of the statue makes the case for Davis’s reemergence at the center: “By moving the statue of Jefferson Davis to the Briscoe Center, it is preserved as historical evidence and as an original work of art. However, the statue’s presence in an educational exhibit—as opposed to a place of honor on campus—underlines the fact that Davis, as well as many of his ideas and actions, are no longer commemorated or endorsed by the university.” (A point brought home by the fact that Davis’s new environs are rather small and cramped, compared to his former, more spacious accommodations.)
UNC is one of the top places in the country to study the history of the South. It is impossible not to imagine this statue being used by multiple departments to help students better understand some of the toughest questions that continue to bedevil Americans on the racial front and beyond.
Engage “Silent Sam” at eye level. Study him as part of a class on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow-era. Read Julian Carr’s speech in its presence. Place the protest surrounding this statue right up to its removal by students in proper context so that decades from now people can continue to learn.
I can think of no better way for a school community to take ownership of a statue like “Silent Sam” away from those people who continue to see it as a rallying point for white supremacy.