Sam reminds us of our long, difficult ‘differentness’ – Jane S. Gabin

Jane Gabin
Jane Gabin contributed photo

I first met Sam when I was a beginning graduate student at UNC many decades ago. I had just left New York City for Chapel Hill, not out of crazy love for American literature so much as a curiosity to see another part of the United States. And oh, I soon realized I was in a different place altogether. My travels in the South had taken me to towns and cities where I saw plaques about “The War for Southern Independence” and “The War of Northern Aggression.” Never heard those phrases before.

At UNC, I became more attuned to my own “differentness,” also in a way I had never before realized.

“You’re Jewish?” asked another graduate student. “Do Jews eat normal American food, like spaghetti?” It was the first time I had been asked a question so – how can I put it kindly? – ignorant, and this from a college graduate. When my parents sent me a parcel at Chanukah, I was asked “what kind of crazy holiday is this?”

It was not crazy at all, it was normal, but people felt they could add that adjective because I was not like them. Curiously, the next summer I was doing research in Macon, Georgia, and every white person over 60 (all educated and seemingly polite people) I met seemed to feel he or she could safely use the n-word with me, assuming that because I was white I was an ally. All they saw was my skin.

So although I was not an insensitive person, and in fact was becoming increasingly hypersensitive, I never thought of Sam as oppressive. Perhaps that is because I am white. Neither I nor my ancestors (who arrived in the U.S. from Russia around 1907) had been tools of a slaveholding culture. When I first met Sam, I thought of him as a quaint reminder of a sad history.

A sad figure

Yes, sad. Silent Sam has always been, for me, a sad figure. He is no war hero but a young, innocent fellow, and not happy about what he is doing. What gripped me from the beginning was not the statue itself, but the bas-relief panel below it, showing a young man at his studies, reading, when the symbolic figure of War touches his shoulder, and he drops his book. This is what I always show to campus visitors. To me, this was the tragedy – so many lives cut short, as with every war, when middle-aged and older men decide on policy and young ones go out to die.

Every Southern town and city has its Civil War statue and/or memorial, but I had not realized that most were established during the Jim Crow era. Northern towns and cities have their monuments as well, but no one there complains because – even though many Northerners were also racists and some even paid others to fight in their place – the Union won.

And yes, I have heard the story of Julian Carr, the wealthy mill owner who spoke at Sam’s dedication, relating how he whipped an African-American woman in Chapel Hill. But Julian Carr’s behavior is not itself a reason to remove the statue.

It’s a reason to change the name of Carrboro.

Magnolias and moonlight

Silent Sam is a relic and a reminder of the past. It is a past that is gone, but not yet over. He is a part of Chapel Hill, and we all – particularly those of us who are African-American, female, non-Christian, and from elsewhere – know that Chapel Hill is not all magnolias and moonlight. Famed Southern author William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” It’s true. People wish they could not see relics of the past; but that does not make that past disappear.

UNC’s Memorial Hall glorifies the past. Surely some of the plaques within list the names of slaveholders and slavery-supporters. And did any of those men beat their wives? Probably, given the known statistics. Not everyone on campus was a freethinker like Professor Horace Williams. No campus is a completely pure place. Even the land on which UNC stands was stolen from the indigenous people who once lived there.

Making UNC a university truly and sincerely “of the people” has taken a long, long time. Too long. Until the 1990s, for instance, any visitor entering the Office of Undergraduate Admissions on Country Club Road would be confronted by the huge portraits of three long-dead white male administrators. Now there is a mural (which I suggested when I worked there) representing a cross-section of current students.

I should like to suggest a compromise: keep Silent Sam, but ADD more signage discussing his symbolism and the controversy surrounding him. Move the Unsung Heroes monument CLOSER, and ADD signage to that as well. In the first place, I can’t fathom why this was not included when the monument was first erected. Of course some people use it as a picnic table – that’s certainly what it looks like in the dark. And during daylight hours, without any explanation, how would visitors interpret it?

UNC-Chapel Hill has a long, beautiful, difficult, and problematic history. But one does not cope with the past by blotting it out. It happened. Today’s students, faculty, and staff are in the wonderful position of being at the receiving end of this history, and can be the first in acknowledging and reconciling the problems, and moving on to a greater, more peaceful future together.

Jane Gabin is a writer and educator and a UNC-CH alumna. She lives in Chapel Hill.