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One Year Later, UNC Is Still Grappling With Silent Sam's Legacy

A patch of new grass shows where the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam once stood.
Will Michaels
A patch of new grass shows where the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam once stood.

On August 20, 2018, protesters toppled the Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill known as Silent Sam.

One year later, the fate of the statue is still unclear, and questions remain about how the university should reckon with the issues of race that Silent Sam brought to the foreground.The bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood on campus for more than 100 years, but today there is not much evidence that it was ever here.

"You wouldn't even know where it was unless you walk up close and you can see the small patch where the grass is cut short," said UNC graduate student Lindsay Ayling as she stood in front of the square patch of grass amid tall oak trees on McCorkle Place.

Ayling was in this same spot a year ago. It was the night before the first day of classes. About 300 protesters surrounded the statue, put up tall banners with anti-racist slogans, and loosened Silent Sam from its pedestal.

"I was standing just east of the statue when I heard the crowd yell, 'Pull!,' and heard it crack off its hinges and hit the ground with a thud," Ayling recalled. "I always feel a sense of relief when I walk by this area and it's no longer there."

Police stand guard after the confederate statue known as Silent Sam was toppled by protesters on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Aug. 20, 2018.
Credit Gerry Broome / AP

Silent Sam's fall set off a chain of events. Some demonstrations between neo-Confederate groups and counter-protesters turned violent. Former Chancellor Carol Folt resigned while ordering the remnants of the statue removed, and then the UNC Board of Governors took over the process of figuring out what to do with Silent Sam.

Maya Little, another UNC graduate student, drew attention for pouring some of her own blood on Silent Sam in protest earlier last year. She’s been banned from McCorkle Place, one of the major entry points to campus and the same place where police found racist graffiti on a memorial for slaves who built the university.

"Campus police, by continuing to  trespass me, have relegated me to using dark, unlit spaces on a campus in which neo-Confederates wrote death threats against me on a monument to enslaved black people," Little said. "So no, I don't feel safe on campus."

Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz took over during the spring semester. He launched a campus safety commission that includes students, faculty and staff, and says he believes a new police chief will help rebuild trust.

"To the students, I'm committed to ensuring that they feel they belong here, that every student feels they belong here and they feel safe here," he said.

But UNC history professor William Sturkey said in the unease following Silent Sam’s fall, some faculty decided to leave.

"We lost a lot of people of color in the last year," he said.

Silent Sam on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus is a controversial Confederate symbol.
Credit Don McCullough / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
'Silent Sam' stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years before protesters pulled it down August 20, 2018

Sturkey believes university administrators missed an opportunity to engage faculty in the history department to figure out what to do with the statue. He says the Board of Governors delaying a decision has served to make the issue more toxic and politically divisive.

"Sometimes, institutions like UNC see diversity as being a black face on a banner or on a website without actually tapping into the intellectual benefits of diversity," Sturkey said. "That means having a person in the administration who doesn't have a white hetero-normative view point."

Chancellor Guskiewicz says the number of faculty departures in the past year was not much different than the two years before. From exit interviews with faculty of color, he was not sure Silent Sam was a big factor.

"In some cases, it had nothing to do with the monument and nothing to do with not feeling welcomed or they belonged here. It had to do with just a better opportunity for them elsewhere. But when I hear - if I hear - that they don't feel safe here, we've got to address it," Guskiewicz said.

The iterim chancellor said he is launching another commission this fall on History, Race and Reckoning. He has said he does not believe the mounment should be on campus.

Meanwhile, Silent Sam remains in an undisclosed location. The UNC System office did not respond to requests for interviews with members of the Board of Governors about their plans for the statue.

Tuesday is the first day of classes once again at UNC. Lindsay Ayling plans to be back at that empty patch of grass on McCorkle Place tonight.

"I hope that one day, the statue will recede from memory, and what people will remember is the community that students were able to build that took it down," she said.

Activists have invited incoming students to celebrate the anniversary of Silent Sam's fall.

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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