A look back at the history of UNC’s Silent Sam
Silent Sam has been under fire a long time.
Archivists at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library digitized primary sources of the Confederate monument’s history on the campus last year.
“Any time there’s this much interest in a piece of university history we see it as a tremendous learning experience,” said university archivist Nicholas Graham. “And we encourage students and everyone to go to the original sources and draw their own conclusions.”
Controversies surrounded Sam throughout the 20th century, evidenced by senior student P.W. Carlton’s 1959 reflection in The Daily Tar Heel on his time as a college student.
“Dear old Sam, the object of student wrath and indignity for better than 100 years, stands stolidly upon his tarnished pedestal, scrupulously refusing to the meet the eyes of passers by, unruffled by his new coats of blue or green or red paint and by the lingerie displays which frequently dorn his rifle barrel,” Carlton wrote.
On May 15, 1908, The UNC Board of Trustees approved a United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) request to erect “a handsome and suitable monument on the grounds of our State University, in memory of the Chapel Hill boys, who left college, 1861-1865 and joined our Southern Army in defense of our State.”
The following year, UNC President Francis Venable expressed his hope that Silent Sam would be completed by 1911, and in 1910 sculptor John Wilson began designing Sam.
Silent Sam was modeled on 16-year-old Harold Langlois, from Boston.
A plan called for UDC to finance one-third of the statue’s design and build and install it while alumni and donors paid for the rest.
UNC Library archives record Venable as having said in 1910 that UNC-CH would not pay for the memorial.
The statue was not completed by 1911 as Venable had hoped and not until 1913 did Wilson complete his casting of the statue.
And on June 2, 1913, Silent Sam was dedicated on commencement day with speeches from then Gov. Locke Craig and Confederate Civil War veteran Julian Carr.
Carr praised the Confederate Army as the saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South” and recalled “horse-whipp[ing] a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” for offending a Caucasian woman on Franklin Street.
UNC Library archives note, when fundraising efforts fell short, UNC-CH covered the remaining $500 bill still owed for Sam’s sculpting and set-up.
A little friendly vandalism
Over the years, Silent Sam has been the target of athletic rivalry tomfoolery, shenanigans and devilment.
In addition to burning the initials “N.C.S.” into the lawn of Morehead Planetarium, the Sept. 28, 1954, edition of The Daily Tar Heel reported that N.C. State students painted the statue’s base black and stuck a beer bottle on Silent Sam’s rifle.
UNC Library archives note that a UNC groundskeeper told a passerby, “We have to do this after every darn home game.”
The word “Duke” was written on Silent Sam in 1958.
In 1981 the statue was again vandalized, this time during the NCCA basketball finals. Bobby Knight’s Indiana men’s basketball team beat Dean Smith’s Tar Heels in the championship game 63-50.
Guns, virgins and a modern name
The student newspaper’s first mention of the statue in 1913 called it the “Soldiers Monument.” UNC Library Archives note that through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the statue was referred to as the “Confederate memorial.”
It’s wasn’t until the Feb. 23, 1954 edition of The Daily Tar Heel, that the campus publication first referred to the statue as “Silent Sam.”
The old schoolboy myth about Silent Sam says that if a virgin – presumably female – walks past, Sam will fire his weapon in recognition.
In a 1937 drama review, the then-editor of the Daily Tar Heel, Bill Hudson, wrote that the legend was an “old local wisecrack,” according to UNC Library Archives.
In his article, Hudson provided readers with his two cents about “Say the Word,” a play put on by UNC-CH’s Wigue and Masque club.
According to UNC Library Archives, in the play a professor lectures to his class outside with the Silent Sam statue as a backdrop.
A “coed” passes in front of the class and the professor, after clearing his throat, tugs at his collar. When she walks by again, the distracted and flushed professor finds it difficult to continue lecturing.
After a third pass, the professor says, “Class dismissed,” before running after the young woman.
The students then performed a song and dance routine. At its conclusion, the professor reenters the stage with an air of dejection.
“As he passes beneath the statue, the gun goes off,” reported The Daily Tar Heel.
Get it? … He’s still a … virgin …
Silent Sam’s cameo was “the hit scene of the show,” a Daily Tar Heel reporter wrote after opening night.
World War II to the present
Silent Sam was endangered at World War II broke out.
There was talk of the statue being melted for scrap to aid the war effort.
The Civil Right Movement in the 1960s brought letters to Daily Tar Heel editors’ mailboxes calling for the removal of the statue which bares “C.S.A.” [Confederate States of America] on his canteen. In 1967, the activist poet John Beecher, a descendant of author Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) and abolitionist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, “debated” Silent Sam, reading excerpts from his collection of poems, “To Live and Die in Dixie,” to the statue.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Silent Sam was smeared with paint. But the following day, student volunteers cleaned and decorated the statue with small Confederate flags. When asked to remove the flags, the student volunteers reportedly complied with the request.
In 1986, the statue was temporarily removed, shipped to Cincinnati, cleaned and restored at a cost of $8,600.
“Bronze specialists Eleftherios and Mercene Karkadoulias repaired cracks, removed green oxidation, and gave the statue a protective wax coating. The refreshed statue is put back in place six months later,” UNC archivists wrote.
Former UNC-CH professor Gerald Horne, “sarcastically” compared Silent Sam to a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In 2011, “The Real Silent Sam Movement” unveiled a mock historical plaque meant to point out the statue’s racist implications.
The words “KKK” and “Black Lives Matter” were spray painted on Silent Sam in 2015.
Speaking about the recent toppling of a Confederate monument in downtown Durham Horne said, “I’m proud of Durham.”
Horne said Silent Sam’s removal is “long overdue.”