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Race & Demographics

UNC vs. Duke: A Tale Of Two Confederate Statues

Silent Sam, UNC, Duke Chapel, Confederate Monuments
Leoneda Inge

Two prominent universities have removed Confederate statues on their campuses – but in very different ways – as campuses grapple with race and relics of the past.

This week, a Confederate monument known as "Silent Sam" was toppled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This comes one year after Duke University removed a statue of General Robert E. Lee from its chapel. The fact that one school is public and the other private helps explain their different paths to the same result.

When thousands of students arrived for school in Chapel Hill this week, a notable part of the campus landscape was gone. The Confederate monument known as "Silent Sam" was toppled by students and activists and hauled away.

Lindsay Ayling is a graduate student at UNC. The day after the statue was toppled, she created her own little monument, taping posters to what's left of the Confederate statue.

"These are the names of Black students who should be memorialized as opposed to having a monument to white supremacy on campus," said Ayling.

"Silent Sam" had stood tall on campus for more than 100 years, facing Chapel Hill's Franklin Street. It memorialized UNC students killed during the Civil War. Ayling said students were forced to take down the monument because the administration wouldn't.

"UNC maintained Silent Sam illegally, despite the fact that they were violating the Civil Rights Act by maintaining a racially hostile learning environment," said Ayling.

UNC administrators say the only illegal acts have been the vandalism and destruction of property. They've asked the State Bureau of Investigation to help local police make arrests.

Many people in Chapel Hill had called for "Silent Sam's" removal. But the university argued there was little it could do – because a state law forbids the removal of monuments on public property without permission from a historical board.

Confederate Monuments, Robert E. Lee, Duke Chapel, Duke University
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
Duke University officials removed the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Duke Chapel August 19, 2017.

A few miles up the road from UNC is Duke University in Durham. New students and parents are touring Duke Chapel, the most prominent building on campus.

At the entrance, there is an empty space where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee once stood – right between monuments of President Thomas Jefferson and Poet Sidney Lanier. Almost invisible, but in plain sight.

Luke Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel.

"In many ways, it blends in so naturally with the stone, that it may not draw your attention to it, unless someone points it out," said Powery, looking toward the chapel front door.

After last summer's deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, Duke officials quietly took the statue down in the middle of the night – no students, no protests, no state laws to get in the way. The private university even touts the removal in its campus brochures. Powery supports leaving the space empty.

"So, we have to be careful in thinking that pulling something down solves something. It might be a beginning, but let's be careful," said Powery. "Some of the additions or deletions just may be cosmetic, cosmetic surgery."

Tell that to UNC Professor Altha Cravey, who said she has walked by the confederate "Silent Sam" statue countless times in her 24 years on campus.

"For the moment, it's incredibly beautiful to see the campus in this new way," said Cravey, standing near what's left of the "Silent Sam" monument.

No word on what will happen to "Silent Sam." Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee is being kept in a secure storage facility at Duke.

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