UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said Thursday that she remains worried about safety around the Silent Sam Confederate statue on campus, which continues to be “a focal point of fierce protest and debate.”
In an update to the university’s board of trustees, Folt said recent events prompted her to increase police presence in the area as tensions have mounted. On social media, student protesters have posted videos of ugly clashes with football fans on game days.
“Increasingly it’s also become the site of tension that has erupted as verbal threats and taunts, physical confrontation,” Folt said. “The students and the faculty involved in these confrontations are deeply disturbed.”
The monument has been the source of protests, and now a student boycott of UNC restaurants and stores, since the semester started and the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August.
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On Thursday, trustee chairman Haywood Cochrane said the board would provide an open opportunity in November to hear from students and others about the statue. Meanwhile, a campus history task force is at work designing markers and digital content that would curate UNC’s history, including Silent Sam.
For weeks, Folt has been targeted by protesters who want the statue taken down.
She reiterated Thursday her previous public statements that she thinks it is best for Silent Sam to be moved, but that she is stymied by a 2015 law that prevents the alteration of monuments on state property.
“I do believe that as long as Silent Sam is in its current location, it runs the risk of continuing to drain energy and goodwill that we worked so hard to maintain on our campus,” she said, “and truly does distract us from reaching the important goals we all share.”
Folt said the university will follow the law, so for now there is no action to take down the monument. Gov. Roy Cooper said in August that the university could move the statue because of safety concerns, but UNC lawyers contend that provision in the law only relates to monuments that pose a physical hazard.
The situation has put the university in a political quandary.
Cooper has asked the state historical commission to consider moving other Confederate monuments on capital grounds – a request that the commission will study before it meets again in April. UNC’s School of Government professors will serve as consultants to the commission, Folt said.
In August, Folt and Cochrane had joined UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette in requesting that the governor petition the state historical commission to take up the Silent Sam issue. But the UNC leaders did not submit a formal request before the commission’s meeting a week ago.
A Cooper spokesman said the UNC system office declined to go forward, at this point, with a formal petition to the commission. That followed a stinging letter to system president Spellings and chair Bissette from 15 members of the Republican-dominated Board of Governors. They expressed their opposition to the original UNC request of Cooper, a Democrat, without the full board’s knowledge, calling it “wholly unacceptable.”
When asked Thursday about why the Chapel Hill campus didn’t make a petition to the commission, Folt said the campus wasn’t asked. Cochrane echoed that.
“We were not asked, we were not approached about joining the petition,” Cochrane said. “I believe the system was.”
He said the action would have to be taken by the UNC system and not the campus.
Folt said she had attended campus meetings with hundreds of people in the past few weeks to discuss the heated issue.
“My sense of respect for the community has grown,” she said. “These are not easy meetings but these are honest meetings, every single one of them.”
Faculty and student government groups have called for the statue’s removal, and a group of students, along with a law faculty member, have threatened a federal discrimination lawsuit if Silent Sam is not taken down.
Meanwhile, the university’s history task force, formed two years ago, is proceeding with plans to design markers and online material to “curate” McCorkle Place, the area of campus where the Confederate monument stands.
The effort will focus on many historic aspects, including Native Americans, the founding of the university, early student life and contributions of slaves who helped build the university.
It will also explain the context and history of Silent Sam, which was erected in 1913 to honor UNC alumni who fought in the Civil War. It is expected to include material from primary documents, such as the speech made by Julian Carr at the statue’s dedication, when he described horse whipping “a Negro wench” and said the Confederate soldier “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”
Jim Leloudis, history professor and task force member, said the effort is timely and not dependent on whether the statue remains there in the future. He called it “an opportunity to help people understand the history of that monument itself, the time at which it was built, as a way of wrestling with the issues that it confronts us with today.”
Folt said that for many on the campus, Silent Sam is “a symbol of racism and the white supremacy movement and needs to be removed.”
“For others, it is a deep part of North Carolina’s history that should not be forgotten, and many of them believe that it needs to be put into context as a historic reminder and an educational tool,” she added. “And for still many others, it’s a veneration of Confederate war veterans and ancestors who died serving their country and should be left alone, honored and respected. It may be that there’s no solution that will be acceptable to everyone, no solution that’s going to make everyone happy.”