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Debate Over Silent Sam Reveals Differing Views Of University's History

Lisa Philip

The University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill Board of Trustees held a public hearing Wednesday to gather opinions on Silent Sam. That’s the Confederate monument sitting near the entrance to the UNC campus that has become the focal point of protests and denouncements by students, faculty, and even entire university departments.While the majority of speakers who came before the board called for the removal of the statue, a handful asked that it be left in place, revealing a division in how the university community views its Confederate past.

It represents a part of history which is both good and bad. And it cannot be erased. -Eunice Brock

About halfway through the nearly two-hour hearing, Chairman Haywood Cochrane looked around the room for the next speaker. Eunice Brock walked slowly up to the podium. She had at least half a century on the students who had spoken before her.

“In my younger years, I marched and stood on Franklin Street for civil rights, along with protesting against the Civil War,” she said. “I had my time in court.”

Brock said she is an alumnus of UNC, and has lived in Chapel Hill for more than sixty years.

“To the students and others, I applaud your opposition to racism,” she said. “But I am against the removal of Silent Sam, because I do not believe it expresses racism.”

Brock said the statue is a “true veteran’s monument,” to honor those UNC alumni who died in the Civil War.

“It represents a part of history which is both good and bad,” she said. “And it cannot be erased.”

James Ward also announced himself as a graduate of the university, and he too said the statue should remain in place.

“Most of us look at the statue today and see a memorial to our ancestors, our blood kin who died in a devastating war,” he said. “Most of those people went to war reluctantly, because their state had called them to fight off an invasion of the South, and they answered the call of duty.”

But many of the speakers Wednesday who called for the removal of Silent Sam contested this narrative.

Silent Sam monument on UNC Chapel Hill's Campus
Credit Matt Couch / WUNC
The Silent Sam monument, erected in 1913, stands prominently on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus.

“To believe that Silent Sam is heritage rather than hate, requires one to ignore the statements of prominent Confederates at the time,” said Thomas Hardy, who told the trustees he is a proud UNC alum and 11th-generation North Carolinian.

Hardy said many of his ancestors were slave owners.

“Now these members of my family that owned slaves were surely men of their particular time in history,” he said. “Maybe they were nice to their kids, didn’t kick their dogs, and maybe they went to church on Sunday. But whatever it was about them that made them think it was okay to buy, own and sell human beings -- I can only call evil.”

Hardy said the Confederates were “irritated about a number of things.” But he said they were “most irritated” by threats to slavery.

“So those who wish as individuals to fly the battle flag or build private Confederate monuments, are free to do so. That’s why we have the First Amendment,” he said. “But they should not be surprised when many of us react with horror at their glorification of the most loathsome chapter of our history.”

It was erected purposefully to remind all who walked in its shadow, that no matter our advancements as a people, we would always be viewed as not equal and unwelcome. -O.J. McGhee

O.J. McGhee said the statue goes even further than that, and that there’s “nothing silent” about it. He is chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, which advocates on behalf of African-American staff at UNC.

“It was erected purposefully to remind all who walked in its shadow, that no matter our advancements as a people, we would always be viewed as not equal and unwelcome,” he said.

McGhee said he recognizes differences in opinion on “noble causes” of the past.

“But we should all agree that the pain of someone’s oppression should have never been placed on a pedestal, to be celebrated,” he said.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt has said she would remove Silent Sam if she had the authority to do so. State legislators passed a law in 2015 requiring their approval to remove monuments from state property.

University officials could petition the state’s historical commission to remove Silent Sam. But they have yet to do so.

Lisa Philip is an occasional contributor to WUNC. Previously, she covered education for the station and covered schools in Howard County, Maryland for the Baltimore Sun newspapers.
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