The rise and fall of Silent Sam
PROLOGUE: After standing for 105 years in the oldest part of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, Silent Sam fell on Monday, pulled from his pedestal by the protestors’ tug of a rope. Immediately the news became cause for celebration and outrage: celebration for those who saw the statue as a racist symbol of white supremacy, as an ode to soldiers who fought, among other things, for the survival of slavery; outrage for those who viewed the statue as a tribute to Southern heritage, and to lives lost while soldiers fought for a cause they believed in.
To understand how Silent Sam fell is to understand how he rose. This is the story, told in five chapters, of the rise and fall of an 8-foot bronze, boyish depiction of a Confederate soldier who faced north, toward the enemy, for more than a century. It is a story whose final chapter has yet to be written.
Chapter 1: The Soldier Boy
On June 1, 1908, the Board of Trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill approved a request from the North Carolina division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy: The university supported a plan to build a Confederate monument.
The Civil War had been over for 43 years. In a time when the average life expectancy was around 50, the college students who’d left their campuses to fight in the war were becoming old men. In Chapel Hill, UNC President Francis Venable expressed a sudden urgency.
“I hope very much that this laudable purpose can be carried out,” Venable wrote in a March 1909 letter to the chairwoman of the U.D.C.’s monument committee. “You know that more than one thousand of the alumni entered the Confederate service and surely something should be done to perpetuate the patriotism and heroism of these noble sons of the university.”
And so began a five-year process to build the monument that became known as Silent Sam. In the beginning, the statue wasn’t going to be a statue at all, but instead what Venable, UNC’s president until 1913, described in a letter as a “memorial gateway to campus.”
By September 1909, Venable had come to agree with the opinion of Annie Hill Kenan, the chairwoman of the U.D.C.’s monument committee. Kenan had favored a statue, and in a Sept. 24, 1909, letter, Venable wrote that her original idea “was the wisest one.”
The university and the U.D.C. hoped to dedicate the statue at the 1911 commencement, on the 50th anniversary of the start of the war. Venable wrote of “a great reunion,” one that would include Confederate veterans.
Instead, cost concerns and a back-and-forth among Venable, the U.D.C. and the potential designers of the monument delayed the proceedings. By early 1910, Venable and the U.D.C. favored a design from John Wilson, a Boston-based sculptor. He originally asked for $10,000.
Venable feared the U.D.C. couldn’t raise the money. Wilson wrote back in late March 1910, pleading for the work: “I should very much like to undertake the Soldier Boy at this time,” he wrote, “as it appeals to me particularly.” He and Venable agreed on a cost of $7,500 – $5,000 of which UNC alumni raised, with the additional $2,500 coming from the U.D.C.’s own fundraising.
It took another three years for the statue to become reality, amid fundraising challenges and debates about its location. At last, the statue arrived in time for a dedication in early June 1913. The ceremony began at 3:30 p.m., according to a program. A band played Dixie.
The North Carolina governor, Locke Craig, addressed a crowd of dignitaries. Venable spoke, too. The last scheduled speaker was Julian Carr, who was a UNC student until he left to fight for the Confederacy. Carr espoused the virtue of the South, and those who fought for its cause, in laudatory, grandiose language.
“I dare to affirm this day, that if every state of the South had done what North Carolina did without a murmur, always faithful to its duty whatever the groans of the victims, there never would have been an Appomattox,” Carr said, according to a copy of his speech.
Midway through it, Carr veered from praising the fight of Confederate soldiers to describing what they “meant to the welfare of the Anglo-Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”
Moments later Carr recounted his return to Chapel Hill after the war ended:
“One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these university buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 federal soldiers.
“I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shotgun under my head.”
The dedication ceremony ended. UNC, after five years of planning, at long last had its Confederate monument.
Meanwhile, Carr’s words, those about saving “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South” and “horse-whipping a negro wench,” became lost to history. They remained so for almost 100 years, hidden in plain sight in a collection of Carr’s papers, until a graduate student discovered them.
Chapter 2: Lingerie and letters
To Fitzhugh Brundage, a UNC historian who specializes in Southern history, the meaning of Silent Sam was clear the day the statue arrived on campus. Following his argument, any debate about what the statue represented – racism to some, heritage to others – must begin with the origin story.
“The people who created that monument had fixed its meaning,” Brundage said, “and they didn’t acknowledge any other meanings. … They wanted to fix on the landscape one view of the past.”
To Brundage and others who share his view, what Silent Sam represents has never changed. Yet in the first decades after the Confederate monument took its place, the gravity of its meaning appears to have either been temporarily lost, forgotten or ignored. The statue became a light-hearted part of campus lore, and in those days was hardly a divisive symbol.
The first time The Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper, described the statue as “Silent Sam” was in February 1954, in a short column entitled “Campus Seen.” “Silent Sam,” so went the brief account in the newspaper, had been seen “holding a pair of 3-D glasses.”
UNC was still one year away from admitting the three men who would become the university’s first three African-American students. At the time, Silent Sam did not attract protests or calls for its removal. It was, instead, more of a target for college pranks and juvenile urban legends – chief among them that the soldier fired his rifle every time a virgin walked past.
Before the UNC-N.C. State football game in 1954, someone smeared the statue with black paint and left a beer bottle at the end of Silent Sam’s rifle, according to an account in The Daily Tar Heel. In 1959, the paper published a column in which a senior wrote about “the lingerie displays that frequently dorn (sic) his rifle barrel.”
The conversation began to change in the mid-1960s. In 1965, one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a UNC student named Al Ribak wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Tar Heel. Ribak’s letter is the first documented evidence of student opposition to the Confederate monument, according to a collection of Silent Sam documents that UNC has digitized and placed online.
Ribak wrote that while the statue might have “become a part of the UNC tradition, it certainly cannot be argued that traditions should be maintained for tradition’s sake.” He closed his letter with this: “I urge the Daily Tar Heel and the Carolina student body to take up the cause of removing from the campus that shameful commemoration of a disgraceful episode.”
Slowly, a dialogue began, one that the campus newspaper’s archives reflect throughout the late 1960s and early- to- mid-1970s. In 1968, Sharon E. Brown, of the UNC history department, wrote an opinion piece in which she described the conflict of the statue – that it could be seen as both a symbol of Southern pride and as one of oppression.
That same year, graffiti was painted on the statue after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but the next day it was cleaned by students who also placed Confederate flags in the area, according to university archives.
Another five years passed before Aaron B. Fox, a UNC student, wrote to The Daily Tar Heel in 1973. He complained about the lack of representation of black students in the UNC yearbook. The first three pictures he saw in the most recent edition of the yearbook, Fox wrote, were that of a white student, Silent Sam and “lily white flowers.” Of the statue, Fox wrote, “the picture of Sam is a memorial to those soldiers who fought and died while endeavoring to perpetuate the degradation of black people.”
Two days later the paper published a response from another student, who wrote of Confederate soldiers: “They fought NOT ‘to perpetuate the degradation of black people’ as you state, but the primary issue was the protection of their homes and their way of life. … Please remember this, my black brother, white people also have pride in themselves and their heritage.”
A conversation had started, but Silent Sam’s place on campus remained secure.
Chapter 3: A historical smoking gun
Those who suggested changes to Silent Sam often suffered consequences.
In 2003, Gerald Horne, a communications studies professor who is African American, wrote to the Daily Tar Heel, sarcastically asking why Chapel Hill people were so happy at the TV images of Iraqis tearing down statues of the ousted Saddam Hussein.
“We were instructed sternly that toppling statues was attempting to rewrite history,” Horne said in an interview. The “fusillade” of negative reaction, including harassing phone calls, Horne said, helped him decide to leave for the University of Houston.
Adam Domby, a UNC graduate student in history, joined the conversation in 2011, revealing a piece of evidence that would become key to future activism around Silent Sam.
While doing research in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library, Domby had stumbled upon Carr’s speech from the dedication day. He showed it to several historians, who said they’d never seen it. Domby wrote a letter to the editor at the Daily Tar Heel, with excerpts of Carr’s speech.
Students contacted Domby to discuss the history he had uncovered. The students were part of a nascent movement called the Real Silent Sam Coalition.
“I said, ‘You’ll never get this thing down,’” Domby recalled in an interview.
Students within the movement disagreed over their demands when it came to the statue. Some wanted to push for removal; in the end, they chose a more pragmatic approach.
“This home grown group started as wanting to compromise,” said Domby, now a faculty member at the College of Charleston.
A member of that group, Will McInerney, said in an interview that he had been convinced by the historical context and he wanted others to be educated, too.
“It felt very clear to me that the monument, as it stood, was a misrepresentation of history,” McInerney said. “It felt important that the university, an institution of great academic accomplishment, and an incubator of knowledge — particularly one of great prestige around Southern American history — should have a historically accurate understanding of it.”
On Feb. 15, 2012, the coalition presented a four-point proposal to then-Chancellor Holden Thorp and the trustees.
“Our intent is not to remove monuments or revise history; rather, we seek to challenge the university to provide a more complete historical narrative,” the group’s proposal said. “Through historical accuracy we hope to invigorate a culture at the university that celebrates difference and cultivates a diverse, egalitarian, and truth-seeking student body.”
What the group wanted was a plaque with context about the founding of Silent Sam. But they also asked for a similar-sized statue to honor a prominent African-American, a memorial review process that would occur every decade and an educational component for all students, including the “Black and Blue” tour of black history at UNC.
The Real Silent Sam Coalition didn’t succeed in getting its plaque. But the group’s efforts led to a major turning point in 2015, when the trustees renamed the academic building previously known as Saunders Hall, which had been dedicated for 19th Century Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders. At the same time, the trustees passed a 16-year moratorium on renaming other buildings and launched a broad effort to curate UNC’s history with accurate markers.
The winds of change were blowing.
In June 2015, Dylann Roof was charged with the racially motivated killing of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church. The next month, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House grounds at the recommendation of then-Gov. Nikki Haley.
About two weeks later, though, North Carolina’s elected leaders took their own stance on history. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law legislation that prohibited the alteration of historic monuments and “objects of remembrance.”
Chapter 4: Politicians, protests and police
The trajectory for Silent Sam may have been set a year ago in another state.
Last August, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., resulted in the death of a counter-protester and the related deaths of two state police officers in a helicopter crash. The “Unite the Right” march was meant to oppose the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a city park.
Around the country, Confederate statues began to come down, including overnight secret removals at the University of Texas in Austin and at Duke University. In Durham, the statue in front of the old courthouse was toppled by force at the hands of protesters.
Anti-Silent Sam activists had not been dormant in recent years — they had held organized demonstrations in late 2015 at University Day and at a campus “town hall” meeting on race.
Through generations, the focus on Silent Sam had been maintained by students of color at UNC who kept up the fight. The Black Student Movement had gathered there in 1971 after the murder of a black man killed on campus by a white motorcycle gang; the group led a march during the L.A. riots following the police beating of Rodney King.
But late 2017 was different. There was a new urgency in the air.
Only 10 days after Charlottesville, hundreds of people turned out to a massive demonstration around Silent Sam. They couldn’t get close to the monument, though. Police, wearing helmets, had erected barricades around the statue.
UNC leaders, worried about safety before the protest, had written to Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, asking him to request the state Historical Commission to step in. The Chapel Hill mayor wanted Silent Sam removed, too. Cooper responded that the university was free to take down the statue under a safety hazard provision in the state law.
It didn’t happen. University lawyers disagreed with Cooper’s interpretation of the law. The Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors members objected to the talks between Cooper and UNC administrators.
So continued a year of sit-ins, a UNC food service boycott, petitions, a threatened civil rights lawsuit, public hearing speeches and other attempts by Silent Sam’s opponents. One day last September, students took drums, pots and pans and party horns to Chancellor Carol Folt’s office to get her attention.
Folt admitted it would be better for the university if the statue were moved.
“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, and truly does distract us from reaching the important goals we all share,” she said at a trustee meeting last year, as reported by The News & Observer.
But, she maintained, her hands were tied.
Meanwhile, student government, faculty leaders and various academic departments, one by one, called on Folt, UNC boards and elected leaders to work out some plan to move Silent Sam.
In April, graduate student Maya Little poured red ink and some of her own blood on the statue in broad daylight. She was arrested and charged with criminal vandalism and an honor court violation at UNC. She said she was providing her own context to the statue — with black blood symbolizing the violence of the past.
UNC continued with its plans to erect new signs with historical context and interactive online resources. The university also spent $390,000 on security around the monument last fiscal year, and drew scorn when campus police sent in an undercover officer to infiltrate a sit-in.
Graduation came and went, and Silent Sam still stood.
On Monday, at the beginning of a new academic year, UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South posted a statement saying the university’s inaction was immoral. Malinda Lowery, the director, called for the legal removal of Silent Sam, which she said was “a mysogynist insult” to women that “whitewashes the past.”
“‘Silent Sam’ stands in the way of our purpose,” she wrote.
By midnight, Silent Sam had fallen.
Chapter 5: To be continued
UNC’s statue saga isn’t over.
As the bronze soldier lies in storage somewhere, counter protests are planned. UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith called the protest “unacceptable, dangerous and incomprehensible,” and said “mob rule” won’t be tolerated.
They promised a full investigation and on Friday, police took out three arrest warrants against protesters.
But so far, UNC officials are quiet on the question of what happens next with Silent Sam. One Board of Governors member said the statue would be reinstalled within 90 days.
Barbara Rimer, the dean of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, sent a letter to the Gillings school Tuesday. In it, she suggested a monument to a person who promoted peace, equity or prevention, instead of a return to Silent Sam, who, she said, “spoke loudly.”
“It’s no wonder that, as other states sought to move beyond the past by removing statues, our inability to do so caused wounds to fester until the pain became unbearable,” Rimer said. “It is not surprising that it happened Monday night. It is only surprising that it did not happen sooner. One hundred and five years of simmering were bound to lead to a boil.”
McInerney, the UNC alumnus, poet and a Cambridge University graduate student, said he found Monday’s outcome completely comprehensible.
“As the first public university, one embedded in the American South, this is not a thing that’s going away,” he said.
“The conversation is heating up, and we need to lean in to that conversation and continue to do this hard work around understanding our past.”
Many of the historical references in this story relied upon archival documents from the UNC libraries.