She turned to action against UNC’s Silent Sam after years of talk got nowhere, protester says

Editor’s note: This story was published by The News & Observer on May 2, 2018.

For two years, Maya Little has talked, chanted, carried signs, handed out fliers and asked for signatures on petitions to try to get UNC to remove its monument to the Confederacy from the university’s front yard.

This week, she seemed to finally run out of words and turned to gesture. Nearly as mute as the bronze likeness of Silent Sam himself, Little opened bottles of red ink and, mixing in a bit of her own blood, stained the gray Mount Airy granite base of the controversial statue crimson red.

“That statue is not a historical object,” said Little, who was arrested Monday and charged with defacing the monument. “It’s missing its history. What I did was give it some context.”

Little, 25, is one of several activists who have held midday protests of the statue for months. But as a black woman pursuing a doctorate in history from UNC, she may have a unique perspective on the sculpture.

Commissioned in 1910 and dedicated in June 1913, the statue was installed at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who raised most of the $7,500 it cost to commemorate the 321 UNC alumni who died in the Civil War and the 1,062 who entered the Confederate Army.

The statue was installed at a time when the state enforced segregation through “Jim Crow” laws. In North Carolina, blacks were not allowed to wait for buses or trains in the same rooms as white people. They couldn’t read books in the same rooms of libraries. When they died, they often could not be buried in the same cemeteries.

No hint of that history is inscribed on the plinth base of Silent Sam. Nor is the fact that hundreds of slaves and freed blacks provided labor to construct the buildings and serve the students and faculty of North Carolina’s first university.

Little’s point in turning Silent Sam red, she said, was to commemorate the blood that ran under the skin of those African-Americans and to remind people that a statue celebrating the Confederacy continues to cause harm today. It was meant to be intimidating, she said, and it has told generations of African-Americans teaching and studying at the school that they are inferior.

She had to do something

Little said she had no idea when she started school at UNC in 2016 that the campus had a Confederate monument. Once she saw it, she said, she knew she had to try to do something about it.

A native of Ohio and the daughter of a teacher, Little got her bachelor’s degree in history from Bowdoin College in Maine. She spent a year studying abroad and, after college, taught in rural China for a year.

She responded to the Confederate monument the way she does most things, she said: She started researching it, reading historical documents and reports. She learned that it has been the subject of protests and a tool for student expression for at least 78 of the 105 years it has stood in the grassy common area near Franklin Street.

Last year, after a self-described neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white supremacy rally centered on a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Va., killing one woman, UNC students renewed their call for Silent Sam to be marched off campus.

After nine days of round-the-clock protests, which Little said were met with threats from people who say the statue should be left in place, Little and others began their daily protests instead. The threats still come, she said, sometimes online, sometimes within earshot of campus police, who are tasked with overseeing the site.

“I feel afraid all the time,” said Little, who said men have told her they would like to see her lynched.

‘A festering wound’

On Wednesday, 40 people who said they are members of the UNC History Department and “the broader UNC campus community” signed a letter to Chancellor Carol Folt and other university officials saying they support Little and others using nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the statue.

They called the monument “a festering wound on the campus” and said, “Abundant historical research documenting its racist origins makes clear there is not a place for such a monument on a campus that claims to welcome all of its diverse members.”

While some have advocated moving the statue to Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, and Folt has said it is a distraction and a detriment to the university, the UNC Board of Trustees appears to be moving forward with a plan to leave it in place and add interpretive material that would give visitors a fuller understanding of it.

The ink Little tossed on the statue wasn’t allowed to dry before university workers started power-washing it off, she said. None of it remained when protesters gathered on Wednesday for their daily vigil.

Video of Little defacing the statue shows her in what friends say is a rare moment.

“She is gentle,” said Mary Dooley, who plans to be at Little’s court hearing next week in Hillsborough on the defacing charge. “I think she just finally felt she had to do something a little more demonstrative.”

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