Time to confront the truth behind Silent Sam – Ted Vaden

Protesters call for removal of UNC's Silent Sam statue

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.
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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.

Of course, Silent Sam should be removed from McCorkle Place on the UNC campus.

The only questions are where the shameful memorial should go, and what should replace it on this most prominent piece of campus real estate. If anything.

Silent Sam is not silent, but stands as a shrieking affront to decency and racial equality to anyone who sees it. I can’t get out of my head the recent plaint by an African-American friend whose son, a UNC freshman, has to be reminded daily of the legacy of white supremacy when he walks his campus.

UNC has been forced to sit on its hands regarding Silent Sam by a mean-spirited General Assembly that passed a law requiring public entities to get approval from the state before removing Confederate monuments. So UNC Chancellor Carol Folt has a campus task force studying the issue.

The co-chair of the task force, history professor Jim Leloudis, recently outlined the back story of Silent Sam in a talk at Carol Woods Retirement Community. It is a sordid history, recalling the virulent racial animosity that infected the post-Reconstruction South in general, and North Carolina and this university in particular.

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.

Most of us have heard the story of Julian Carr, the UNC trustee who spoke at the statue’s dedication in 1913, recounting how he had “horse-whipped a negro wench” who had given offense to a white woman on the streets of Chapel Hill.

What we have not heard is the rest of Carr’s speech. He instructed the commencement day audience, Leloudis said, that “the statue was erected not only to remember and memorialize the dead but, more important, it was there to honor the service of veterans who fought after the Civil War to restore government for and by whites only. ‘They saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race,’ Carr told the crowd. ‘Praise God.’”

You also may not have known that Silent Sam was only one of 53 Confederate soldier statues erected in the first three decades of the 20th Century in public spaces across North Carolina, mostly by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Again, the motivating factor was not memorializing the dead, but enshrining racial inequality.

Gov. William Kitchin, speaking at the dedication of a Confederate monument in Granville County in 1909, said, “the whole country is beginning to recognize that it is not in the power of all the armies ever drilled or all the constitutions ever written to make the white and black races equal.”

Nor may you know that UNC is one of only two universities in the country housing a Confederate statue on campus. The other is the University of Mississippi, whose team nickname is The Rebels and where the state flag still includes the stars and bars.

Given that history of egregious state/university-sanctioned racism, the only question is what to do with the statue. Some want it destroyed. Some are looking for a compromise that gives the Republican legislature a face-saving way to back down – not likely in an election year.

Leloudis argues for a strong statement from UNC. “I think the university has a moral and ethical obligation to declare itself on this issue,” he said. Leloudis would move the statue to a “museum sort of setting so that we can use it in a different way as a pedagogical tool to teach the history of these experiences of a state and region.”

I have more than passing interest in UNC’s racial history dilemma because I am a graduate of Washington and Lee University, named for the Confederate general who was the college’s president from 1865 until he died in 1870 (also named for the Father of our Country, who helped finance the university in Lexington, Va.)

W&L, as it is known, is practically a museum to its former leader. Robert E. Lee and his entire family have their final resting places in a mausoleum at Lee Chapel, on campus. Lee’s office is preserved as he left it, right down to the eyeglasses on his desk. Confederate flags are displayed in the basement museum. Three buildings on campus bear Lee’s name (although the church next door recently changed its name from Robert E. Lee Episcopal to Grace Episcopal).

Tempers flare and emotions run high in August during a rally and march calling for the removal of the Confederate statue known as 'Silent Sam' on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill.

As at UNC, W&L’s president has set up a commission to study the university’s history in the context of race. The commission has commendable ambitions to leverage that history to make W&L a center for study of racism and community.

The elephant in the room is whether the university’s name should be changed to remove Lee. That question, though, is conspicuously absent from the commission’s website.

It is a controversial question, but I think it should be addressed openly. W&L – with a reputation for educating Southern Gentlemen (and since 1985, women) – long has had trouble attracting a diverse enrollment. Still, I was startled to find recently that African-Americans make up only 2.2 percent of the undergraduate student body today. By adhering to the past, W&L chokes off its ability to attract the best students – black, white and other – in the future.

Back to Jim Leloudis, who says the Silent Sam conflict is good for UNC: “This is a place where these kinds of controversies occur. That’s why this is a great place, not because people dodge the controversies and hard truths.”

Ted Vaden is a retired editor at The News & Observer. He can be reached at tedvaden@gmail.com.