Orange County

Silent Sam Confederate statue could be at center of federal lawsuit

Demonstrators loudly urge Chancellor Folt to take down Silent Sam during protest in September

Students and activists gathered outside South Building on UNC’s Campus in September with drums, pots and pans, and noise makers to disrupt business as usual and demand that Chancellor Folt take down Silent Sam.
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Students and activists gathered outside South Building on UNC’s Campus in September with drums, pots and pans, and noise makers to disrupt business as usual and demand that Chancellor Folt take down Silent Sam.

A lawyer representing the UNC Black Law Students Association and other students on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus has informed school and system leaders that he is prepared to file a lawsuit in federal court if Silent Sam is not removed.

Hampton Dellinger sent a letter on Wednesday on behalf of the students and UNC law school professor Erika K. Wilson to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC system President Margaret Spellings.

“Silent Sam should go for many reasons including its incompatibility with the ‘inclusive and welcoming environment’ promised by UNC’s non-discrimination policy,” Dellinger wrote in the letter. “We are providing legal notice of an additional reason why Silent Sam must come down now: The statue violates federal anti-discrimination laws by fostering a racially hostile learning environment.”

Dellinger cited several sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in arguing that UNC is disobeying federal law by continuing to keep the Confederate statue on campus. He said the students and professor plan to file complaints with the federal Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.

A group of about 100 gathered at the "Silent Sam" statue on the UNC campus to protest, seeking for it to be removed from the school grounds, on August 31, 2017.

“Since his unveiling in 1913, the racial hostility represented by Silent Sam, who stands with a rifle at the ready, has been unmistakable,” Dellinger’s letter states. “Julian Carr’s infamous dedication speech included the message to African Americans that ‘these University buildings’ should not be considered safe ground for them – that the statue was erected to side with the Confederacy, not the ‘garrison of … Federal soldiers’ on campus protecting African Americans.”

Dellinger noted what the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce has said about the statue honoring “those ‘who fought … for the right to enslave human beings.’ 

“And as your own website admits: ‘many view it as a glorification of the Confederacy and thus a tacit defense of slavery,’ ” Dellinger stated in the letter. “It is no wonder that Silent Sam remains a rallying cry, and a gathering place, for white supremacists today. More than a century later, Silent Sam still speaks loudly.”

A small group of Confederate flag-waving counterprotesters tried to interrupt an anti-Silent Sam vigil at UNC Chapel Hill on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017.

UNC officials have said they believe it’s in the best interest of campus safety to remove Silent Sam, the Confederate statue that has been the site of a massive protest. But they also insist they don’t have the legal authority to take it down, despite Gov. Roy Cooper’s suggestion that an exception in a state law protecting monuments would allow it.

Joel Curran, the UNC-CH vice chancellor of university communications, issued a statement Wednesday, reiterating that position.

“We have received the letter and understand that for many people the Confederate Monument’s presence can engender strong emotions, and we are respectful of those emotions,” Curran’s statement said. “While we do not have the unilateral legal authority to move the monument, these students have raised questions about federal civil rights law that will need to be addressed, and we will work with our Board of Trustees and Board of Governors to do so. In the meantime, the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History is developing an interpretive plan for McCorkle Place that will include signage presenting historical context of how the monument was erected as part of a broader effort to tell the honest and accurate history of the University.”

Dellinger said he thinks the UNC stance on its inability to take down the statue violates federal laws.

“[I]t ignores UNC’s overriding obligation to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws,” Dellinger said. “UNC is not only free to remove Silent Sam in order to adhere to federal law, it is legally obligated to do so.”

The Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus known as 'Silent Sam' was a point of friction and protest long before becoming part of the national conversation. Here's a look at the monument's history.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1