Longstanding tensions over Silent Sam came to a boiling point during the 2017-2018 academic school year.
A monument to a confederate soldier, colloquially referred to as “Silent Sam,” used to stand at the entrance to UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. Erected during the Jim Crow-era, Silent Sam was part of a South-wide strategy of confederate monument-building as a way to assert white supremacy through control of public space. The statue’s origin story — despite adamant claims from the right that the statue is not about hate — reveals its white supremacist underpinnings. In 1913 Julian Carr, a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, gave a dedication speech for the confederate statue where he described how he “horse whipped” a Black woman less than one hundred yards away.
“One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady…I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison.”
The statue has drawn protests since Black students enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill in the late 1960s.
In 2015 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that forbids the removal of monuments from public space.
Signed by former Governor Pat McCrory, the law prohibits “removing, relocating, or altering monuments, memorial, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission.” Former legislators and current BOG members Leo Daughtry and Rob Rucho voted for the law.
After white supremacists murdered an anti-racist protestor in Charlottesville and Durham activists toppled a confederate monument at the old courthouse soon after, a reckoning over Silent Sam seemed imminent.
Yet as tensions escalated over the fate of the monument, university officials who wanted to remove the monument claimed that they remained at a legal impasse to do so. In August 2017 UNC System President Margaret Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC BOG Chair Louis Bissette, and the UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochrane sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper that detailed concerns about Silent Sam and public safety after escalating protests and concern about safety after Charlottesville. The letter urged Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission and “take up this matter and to consider what steps should be taken, consistent with the law.” Cooper responded and told UNC leaders that they could remove the monument if there was “imminent threat.”
The letter catalyzed a swift response from multiple BOG members, 15 of whom signed a letter authored by Tom Fetzer that criticized Spellings for her and Bissette’s handling of the issue. The signees claimed that leaders should have consulted the entire board and said it was “wholly unacceptable” that Spellings and Bissette made a unilateral decision. The board also lamented Cooper’s “political manipulation” of the situation which further escalated tensions.
“The letter exuded a weakness and hand wringing that does not accurately reflect the Board’s opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated,” -excerpt from the letter from BOG
The letter was signed by the following current BOG members:
Protests continued throughout the 2017-2018 school year with increased Chapel Hill Police and campus police presence at the monument. In May 2018 local Democratic lawmakers filed a bill ordering the relocation of Silent Sam. In July 2018 the News & Observer reported that UNC spent $390,000 on police presence around Silent Sam in a single year. About $3,000 of that money was to “clean the monument after vandalism during the fiscal year.” That same month, UNC BOG Chair Harry Smith said, “At the end of the day, what I want to make sure is that we’re not ignoring it.” The board had no plans to move the monument.
On August 20, 2018 protestors pulled Silent Sam down from its pedestal. BOG members were irate.
In the immediate aftermath BOG member Thom Goolsby, one of the most outspoken critics of protestors and university officials, maintained that “non-student radicals allowed by the police” orchestrated the toppling of Silent Sam. After the statue came down Goolsby pushed for it to go back up in accordance with the 2015 law. He released a video titled “Silent Sam Will Be Reinstalled as Required by State Law.” In a separate video Goolsby vowed to protect the statue, stating “we will continue this fight until the rule of law is re-established in North Carolina.”
BOG member Marty Kotis described protests as “mob rule” and suggested putting a fence around Silent Sam three days after the statue was toppled. Alex Mitchell agreed with a Kotis, noting, “the fact is that it must go back up and it’s all about how we do it.” In response to the presence of armed neo-confederates on UNC’s campus, Kotis said that “dealing appropriately” with left-wing protestors of the statue would cut down on right-wing protestors who have come to campus to “protect” the statue.
In December of 2018 UNC-Chapel Hill officials recommended that Silent Sam be moved to a $5.3 million on-campus facility to house the monument and also serve as a university history center.
The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees noted that while the ideal arrangement would be for the statue to be moved off campus, North Carolina state law prohibited it.
Meanwhile, multiple teaching assistants at UNC threatened to withhold student grades due to the administration and police response to anti-racist organizers and the recommendation that the monument be brought back to campus. The grade strike also criticized the BOG’s support of a mobile force platoon to “clamp down on protestors.”
The TA strike of Fall 2018 prompted swift condemnation from Kotis, who supported a $2 million proposed “mobile force platoon” designed to quell protests. Kotis called the strike an act of terrorism and called for swift action against potential strikers.
Kotis planned to make a motion at a BOG meeting that would “terminate or expel any faculty or students” who chose to withhold grades and “assure they can never be hired by or admitted to any UNC school in the future.”
Calling the strike “beyond dereliction of duty,” Kotis said “frankly I think there are some students who would rather get punched by a TA than withhold their grades.” He also argued that the ongoing situation reinforced “all the fears that people in this state have about higher education,” particularly the fear of North Carolina parents who send their children to school only to have “some liberal professor who says ‘If you don’t agree with me, I’m going to punish you. I’m going to force you to align with all my thoughts.”
Kotis also objected to public comments that criticized the BOG and instead favors indirect comments like survey systems, noting, “I think that’s more productive than if you just come in and yell and scream at somebody, that’s not going to move the ball forward for you.” He also objected to moving the statue to another location where it could be further contextualized because it broke the 2015 law.
A frequent YouTuber, Goolsby also lambasted in a three-minute video the Silent Sam relocation plan proposed by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees as “cowardly and illegal.” He was the only BOG member to vote against forming a five-member task force to assist the Chapel Hill BOT in crafting a new plan.
In a text string, Goolsby responded to a thread stating, “this marine will take the first round of guard duty,” referring to the Silent Sam statue.
The BOG rejected the proposal.
Smith announced that they would deny the plan presented by Carol Folt for “reasons of public safety…alongside the sheer cost of the recommendation.” He affirmed “the goal here is to simply get it right.” The BOG then formed a task force of BOG members to assist the UNC Trustees in putting together a different plan that was supposed to be presented to the full board by March 15, 2019.
The task force members are:
One month later, on January 14, 2019, Carol Folt resigned after ordering the monument’s base be removed from campus.
The fight over the fate of Silent Sam resulted in the resignations of two top officials at UNC; UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC System President Margaret Spellings. Both left before any resolution about the monument’s future. The BOG succumbed to internal turmoil over the statue, with many far-right members lambasting student activists and supporting the monument’s presence on campus.
Folt originally planned to step down after spring commencement. However, in a closed emergency meeting, the BOG drastically shortened the timeline and accepted her resignation effective January 31. Smith said “We just felt it was better to compress the timeline and then work more toward a healing process.” Smith further criticized Folt’s action, calling her failure to consult with the BOG “stunning,” but remained adamant that the action was not punitive.
“You know, it’s a bit stunning based on how this has gone, that UNC-Chapel Hill felt they needed to take this kind of draconian action — and I think that’s what it is. When you start scheduling cranes at night and key and critical stakeholders aren’t involved, it’s just unfortunate.” – Harry Smith at a press conference.
No resolution over the statue appears to be on the horizon.
The BOG pushed the deadline back for the proposal to its May meeting.
“In order to give our team the time they need to do their work, I am extending that [March 15] deadline and asking them to report back to the Board at our May 2019 meeting,” Smith wrote in an e-mail to board members.” – Chairman Harry Smith in an e-mail to board members.
As of June 4, Harry Smith’s thinking had changed course and “evolved,” claiming that he no longer believes the monument should return to campus. He even said that his original thinking about Silent Sam was “quick and uneducated.”