Opinion

‘What up Sam?’ Time to bring ‘our’ racist down – Leslie Frost

Leslie Frost
Leslie Frost

I had dinner plans with a former student the night of the Aug. 22 Silent Sam protest at UNC. Would she rather attend the rally, I wondered. “Let’s be a part of history,” she replied.

I’ve known Amarachi since she was a first-year honors student at N.C. Central University and I taught the yearlong honors seminar as a visiting faculty member. I’ll never forget that lovely class; in the spring they asked if they could do a project to give back to the university and Amarachi proposed a symposium on our semester’s structuring text, “Invisible Man.” With two of her peers, she put together a day of panels, and served on one with Chancellor Charlie Nelms.

Amarachi was transformed by her year at NCCU, and out of a growing self-confidence she followed through on a secret dream: she applied to attend North Carolina’s flagship university. She was accepted and transferred to UNC as a second year. Three years later, she graduated a Tar Heel with a degree in Afro and African-American Studies, the first in her family to graduate college. Amarachi then earned a master’s degree in public health. We were having dinner to celebrate her new job in New York.

Instead, we drove to Chapel Hill to a rally the administration had asked the entire campus community to ignore.

As we walked around in the late summer evening and watched the crowd grow, we both marveled at the students who showed up in the face of the administration’s admonitions to stay away and be safe. As we walked among them, I waved to other faculty, friends from the community and former students.

We decided to visit the memorial to African-Americans whose labor largely built the university. The grounds of McCorkle Place slope down from Silent Sam and as you walk toward it, the Unsung Founders Memorial is Stonehenge out of “This Is Spinal Tap,”a small Alice of a monument, one tumbled through the rabbit hole so fast that when it landed it planted. It appears to be a little marble coffee table perhaps two feet high held up by diminutive figures ankle deep in mud.

There were two people there, a high school girl and her friend examining the miniature monument in the long shadow of Silent Sam. This was the girl’s first experience of understanding Sam’s history, and as a young woman of color she was profoundly distressed.

“I used to come here to camp,” she said, “and I would walk by Sam every day. “I used to say, ‘What up Sam?’ when I walked by. I loved Sam. I didn’t know what he was there for.”

We sat together on little stools around the coffee table. As the students chanted in the deepening night, I surreptitiously dug at the mud to see if the figures holding up the table even had feet and listened to Amarachi and the girl talk, two young women of color, holding each other up as history was rocking the ground beneath them.

I used to come here to camp. I used to say, ‘What up Sam?’ when I walked by. I loved Sam. I didn’t know what he was there for.

Student

I remembered from reading Julian Carr’s 1913 dedication speech: “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 …”

Sam, on his tall pedestal, has his back to the Unsung Founders Memorial. In his lovely setting, with his beautifully open face, Silent Sam is a very attractive memorial to the white supremacist cause for which he was raised. I can see how many white alumni have mixed feelings about taking him down. Yes, he’s racist, but he’s our racist statue, surely harmless in the glow of our shared basketball championships and respectable U.S. News and World Report ranking.

There is a traditional joke: His gun goes off when a virgin walks by. Sam is funny!

The shared old chestnut, and the statue's familiarity to generations, is a part of memory making about a very special place and time in people's lives. Our students cherish our university.

But Silent Sam is a monument to racism. He marks a shameful history. Sam memorializes the landscape that supports him and gives him place of prominence with his values, with Carr’s values, with poisoned ideas the University cannot support.

He has to come down.

For the girls and boys who will walk across the lawn to summer camp and love UNC for its beauty and its basketball, for those who come to learn in its classrooms and libraries and so to love its campus and each other as Tar Heels, UNC should bring him down.

It has to come down.

Leslie Frost, a teaching associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC, lives in Durham.

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