1 year after fall of Silent Sam, activists celebrate but say fight isn’t over

On the first day of classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, exactly a year after protesters tore down the Silent Sam Confederate statue, hundreds of students, faculty and community activists commemorated a new year by celebrating the fall of the statue.

The event was marked with speeches about the rights of indigenous people and immigrants and the harm inflicted by systems rooted in white supremacy. Multiple speakers praised the power of the protesters who brought down the monument to UNC alumni who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Tuesday night’s “Silent Sam is Down: Anniversary Party!,” hosted by Defend UNC and Take Action Chapel Hill activist groups, was a marked contrast to Aug. 20 last year. That night was riddled with conflict and scuffles with police. People rushed to take their photos with the fallen statue and stomped on it.

This year, the activists led the crowd on a walking tour — from Peace and Justice Plaza on the edge of campus through McCorkle Place to the site where the Confederate monument once stood. They marched to the Unsung Founders Memorial, meant to honor the enslaved and free people of color who built the university, and on to the Old Well, where dozens of students had lined up earlier in the day for a good luck sip, a first-day-of-school tradition.

Officers were at the scene with bicycles and horses, but they mostly watched the event from a distance.

The only quiet moment during the two-hour event was an intentional one. It happened while the group stood around the Unsung Founders Memorial and placed flowers on the monument, not far from where Silent Sam once stood for 105 years.

Michelle Brown, who graduated from UNC in 2018, asked for a moment of silence to honor “the black and brown people who built this university and honor the black and brown people who have the courage to go to this university, especially first-years.”

Brown told the crowd she admires new students who came to UNC after the events involving Silent Sam in recent years, which included angry protests, political wrangling, reflection and the ultimate departure of Chancellor Carol Folt.

“I hope it’s because you know that you can follow in the steps of anti-racist activists who came well before me... and will continue to fight this university,” she said. “I hope you are here because you want to join us.”

Cody Gall, middle, disrupts a gathering of students and activists at Peace and Justice Plaza on Tuesday, August 20, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Not everyone agreed with the activists. A man on Franklin Street yelled, “Bring it back!” The line at the Old Well gradually melted away after activists flooded the area, holding signs about 28 places on campus “dedicated to enslavers and white supremacists,” including Kenan Stadium. A woman laid on her car’s horn, apparently to drown out speeches.

Activists encouraged other students and community members to join them in pressuring the university to reckon with its history and to work for the removal of other tributes to white supremacy.

The fate of Silent Sam remains in the hands of the UNC System Board of Governors, who took control of the process in December after rejecting the university’s proposal of building a $5.3 million history center on the edge of campus to house the statue.

For now, the remains of the Confederate monument are stored away in an undisclosed location.

Kaitlyn Davis, a 20-year-old senior who was lined up at the Old Well, appreciated the message she heard Tuesday.

“I support them, and I understand why they’re doing this now, because people are around and will listen,” said Davis, who studies history and public policy. “Throughout history, protests aren’t meant to be simple. Protests are meant to make people angry and make people listen.”

Fatima Konsouh, a 19-year-old freshman who plans to study business and global studies, responded similarly when she ran into the activists while hanging out with friends on Franklin Street.

“I support them,” she said. “I’m glad the statue is down.”

Demonstrators march down Columbia St. in Chapel Hill, NC chanting and stopping traffic on Tuesday, August 20, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

In chants, speeches and T-shirt imagery, activists made clear that they view police as part of the system of white supremacy they want to dismantle. They called the officers “racist” and “animals.”

The police followed the rally when participants took to the streets from the Old Well, making their way through campus to the intersection of East Franklin and South Columbia streets.

There, the students and community activists stood side by side with linked arms, blocking each road at the intersection. Their efforts were aided by police, who stopped traffic around them.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win,” the crowd chanted. “We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

The activists ended the rally gathered around a Confederate flag burning in the middle of the street.

Then, they all headed home, back to their cars and dorm rooms, to get ready for the second day of classes.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.