What Should Happen to Silent Sam

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.

I agree.

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.

9 comments add yours

  1. I think some have suggested moving Silent Sam to Carolina Hall, where there is a permanent and deeply researched exhibit on Carolina’s history. But what about the base? That’s part of the issue we’re facing in Durham. Maya Little, the UNC grad student who used red paint and her own blood to mark the base, did a very thoughtful interview on WUNC’s State of Things. She was open to the possibility of retaining it in place, since the structure now includes the history of the protest: http://www.wunc.org/post/after-fall-activist-maya-little-reflects-silent-sam-and-her-own-fate

    • Hi Robin,

      Nice to hear from you. The university will certainly have to appropriate funds for a proper exhibit. Whether the base is included in such an exhibit will have to be discussed, but I also like the idea of it remaining in place for some of the reasons mentioned by Little.

      My larger concern, however, is that retaining the base may lead to continued clashes as we have already seen over the past week since the statue’s removal.

    • There is no room for the statue in Carolina Hall. And the people who teach and study there do not want to see it every day.

      • Well thank you unidentified UNC employee for choosing to speak for the entire community.

  2. Pre-Charlottesville this might have been feasible, but the conversation has moved beyond compromise. The image of NC is completely different than it was 12 months ago, and will continue to be under scrutiny. Sam on campus is going to continue to generate protests, rightfully so.

  3. Wow. An entire website devoted to lying about the Civil War. Sort of an intellectual spider-web designed to entangle & mislead the curious but unwary. Not that many serious students of history would come here…more like your basic SJW types hungry for comfort food. I must correct at least one factual error, “UNC is one of the top places in the country to study the history of the South.” If Maya Little is typical of the students there, UNC is pretty much a joke, more a PC indoctrination center & place where intellectually challenged minorities can get nice sounding degrees. OTOH, given the Leftist takeover of just about all of academe, there really isn’t any “top place,” or any place – at present – for the honest study of Southern history, or any history for that matter. It’s all about whites being the cancer of history now, isn’t it? On second thought, I may have exaggerated a tad about your lying. Skepticism about the thousands of black Rebel soldiers our neo-Confederate friends brandish like a shield is no doubt correct. But over all, I have to say this is a disgusting place. Still, I might drop by once in a while. Reconnaissance.

    • Thanks for dropping by Mr. Martin. You are always welcome to share your thoughts as long as you do so respectfully. FYI, you are not off to a good start. Perhaps you would be more comfortable on another website where your understanding of the war and its legacy is embraced.

  4. ‘Silent Sam’, and similar monuments, should be placed in a museum room with a single window.

    On the wall next to the window shall be a plaque describing the monument’s history and context.

    The window shall be the same size as the plaque so the viewer sees both the monument and the plaque at the same scale.

    The issue with adding ‘context’ with a descriptive plaque near a monument is scale. One must be fairly close to read a plaque, not so close to see Silent Sam.

    Sam was visible from the planetarium, 300 yards away, from the door of the Four Corners restaurant across Franklin Street and from all floors and north windows of the closest academic building, Battle Hall, which, ironically, is home to the Department of African and African-American Studies.

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