When Frank Porter Graham became president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1932, segregation, discrimination, and racism were as common in the South as statues commemorating those who bore arms for the Confederacy.
Nineteen years earlier, a Confederate memorial conceived by the Daughters of the Confederacy — later known as “Silent Sam” — was unveiled at the “front door” of the campus. At the ceremony, Trustee, Julian Carr told a personal story championing white supremacy, saying “ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox … I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because … she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern (white) lady.” Of the 258,000 Confederate casualties of the Civil War, many had been UNC students who volunteered to fight on the wrong side of history for a cause dedicated to the preservation of slavery.
Decades before the Civil Rights Movement, Graham had demonstrated a unique sensitivity to social injustices. He promoted the work of sociologists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson, nationally renowned scholars on race relations; collaborated with them as founding members of the interracial Southern Regional Council; served on President Harry Truman’s Committee on Human Rights; and created a climate for the University’s Press to publish balanced treatises on race and the research of black academics. By the time Graham retired in 1949, UNC was considered the most progressive of southern universities.
And prior to the Civil Rights Movement, black students were peacefully admitted to the university’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools, and as early as 1951, non-segregated seating was provided at its football games. The university would become fully integrated and diverse during the ensuing years, though “Silent Sam” still stood at the entrance to the campus.
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Then a few years ago, students throughout the nation began challenging the efficacy of campus buildings honoring Confederate heroes and the most extreme of segregationists.
“Silent Sam” represents a lost cause; is offensive and anachronistic to enlightened sensibilities; and it is especially humiliating to the African-American descendants of America’s slaves. The timing was not right for the statue to be removed during Graham’s pre-Brown v. Board tenure as president, but this generation of students recognizes that the removal is long overdue.
It is understandable that Chancellor Carol Folt, the first female and current UNC-CH leader, is under immense pressure to build a $5.3 million gilded penthouse (with $800,000 in annual operating expenses) to house the rehabilitated statue.
The driving force behind the maintenance of this continuing stain on the university’s legacy are North Carolina’s Republican legislators. They appoint UNC’s governing bodies, and have championed voter suppression, racially based gerrymandering of political districts, and the privatization of public education, going so far as to legally create all white charter school districts for wealthy white communities, in addition to maintaining the “Silent Sam” statue.
Furthermore, the state’s two Republican U.S. senators recently pushed for the confirmation of Republican North Carolina lawyer, Thomas Farr, for appointment to the Eastern District Court in North Carolina. Farr was linked to voter suppression and racial gerrymandering while on the staff of the late North Carolina U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Farr’s confirmation was derailed in the eleventh hour by a “No” vote from Tim Scott (R-SC), the lone African-American Republican U.S. senator.
Confederate symbols were at the center of the 2015 massacre at a Charleston, South Carolina, black church where the shooter proudly held a Confederate flag in a photo and at the Charlottesville, Virginia, alt-right rally against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statute from the campus of the University of Virginia. Courage and leadership will be required from the UNC System Board of Governors and UNC-CH Trustees to break with “Silent Sam” and the cause he represents, something that has not been reconciled in this plan by the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. The Old South of Silent Sam should not continue to impose its moral and political views on the 21st. Century.
Al-Tony Gilmore is a historian and archivist emeritus of the National Education Association and recently worked as visiting scholar at The George Washington University. Walter C. Farrell Jr. has been a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.