Peele: A conversation with Silent Sam

Jun. 06, 2013 @ 12:25 PM

Today I walked over to look at “Silent Sam,” the statue of a Confederate soldier that stands at the north end of McCorkle Place on the UNC campus.

The statue has stood there for 100 years.  The soldier grasps a rifle, but he has no ammo, so he cannot fire the rifle.  Thus the name, “Silent Sam.”   On the front of the monument there is a plaque showing a woman in classical dress.  Her hand is on the shoulder of a UNC student, encouraging him to go to war.

On the right side there is a plaque which reads: 

“TO THE SONS OF THE UNIVERSITY / WHO ENTERED THE WAR OF 1861 – 65 / IN ANSWER TO THE CALL OF THEIR / COUNTRY AND WHOSE LIVES / TAUGHT THE LESSON OF / THEIR GREAT COMMANDER THAT / DUTY IS THE SUBLIMEST WORD / IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.”

After l913, each war that the US waged put Silent Sam more and more into the background.  In 1917, we entered World War I, and thereafter we were more concerned with the veterans of that war.  WW II, which ended in 1945, had an enormous impact upon Americans. Our attention went to the “Greatest Generation” – veterans and people on the home front who, working together, helped defeat Germany and Japan. 

Silent Sam stands on one of the most beautiful areas on the campus.  As I stood there, in front of Silent Sam, I recalled that when I was a child I played on the lawn in front the monument.  Frisbee players have enjoyed the area, and many students choose the area to sit down and relax.  To some, it is like an old friend.

People have not paid much attention to the origin and meaning of the monument -- except when there is controversy about it. There has been plenty of controversy over the years. In 1992 there were gatherings of students protesting the memorial.   Vandals have splashed it with paint.  In 2000,  UNC Professor Gerald Horne called the monument a monstrosity.  He wanted it destroyed.

The “Real Silent Sam” group has protested the monument since 2011, and lately their views have been reported extensively in this newspaper. They believe that the original supporters of the monument were motivated by racism and were part of a statewide campaign to establish white dominance.

They cite a speech they say was given by Julian Carr at the 1913 dedication ceremony – and they call attention to the following part of Carr’s speech:  

“I horse-whipped a Negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

As I stood facing Silent Sam, I wondered, “Well, Sam, what are your thoughts about this?”  The wind was passing through the trees, causing a sound much like a whisper.

“Goodness!” I thought, “Does Sam have life?  Is there a spirit inhabiting these beautiful trees?  Or, has old age overtaken my senses?”

In any case, here are the thoughts carried forth by the whisper of the wind:

“Controversy is a normal part of university life.  It is healthy.  If, however, controversy degenerates into unbridled anger and name-calling, it serves no one.  Professor Horne wanted me destroyed.  His opinion is entitled to respect if made on logical grounds. However, he called me a monstrosity.  I am not a monster.”

“Because Julian Carr is alleged to have made a terribly violent and unacceptable statement does not mean the intent of my creation was dedicated to racism.  In fact, Mrs. H. A. London made the dedication speech.  It was a beautiful, poetic speech and did not have one word in it which would suggest a plan to perpetuate and promote segregation. It was an elegant tribute to the heroism and dire hardships endured by Confederate soldiers.”

“To tear me down would be an insult to these soldiers.”