Scholars, Students React to Removal of ‘Silent Sam’ at UNC - Higher Education
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Scholars, Students React to Removal of ‘Silent Sam’ at UNC

by Tiffany Pennamon and Monica Levitan

Monday evening saw nearly 250 protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill marching and collectively chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist statues got to go!”

‘Silent Sam’ after being toppled to the ground by UNC students.

Shortly after 9:15 p.m., the Confederate statue “Silent Sam” had been toppled using ropes after years-worth of demands calling for the statue’s removal.

While university officials called the protesters’ actions “unlawful and dangerous” – sparking backlash – some UNC students, faculty and other community members were elated about the statue’s removal.

“I knew [Silent Sam] was coming down eventually, but once he was down, everyone was just so joyful. I was thrilled to be there,” said Dr. Altha J. Cravey, associate professor of geography at UNC and a longtime proponent for Silent Sam’s removal. “It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I think it’s going to change the whole atmosphere on campus.”

Cravey added that until this week, state politicians and some leaders on campus “wouldn’t budge” about removing the Confederate statue.

“Even on our campus, they refused to petition the body that’s supposed to review these monuments,” she said. “They refused to speak out.”

Reporting from the scene, UNC’s student newspaper The Daily Tarheel captured videos of the earlier demonstration and the culminating protest that led to the statue’s tumbling.

With banners hanging in the background – one read “Dedicated to those who fight against the White supremacy that UNC upholds” – student protesters gathered earlier in the evening at Peace and Justice Plaza in solidarity against White Supremacy.

Maya Little, the UNC graduate student who threw blood and red paint on the Silent Sam statue in April, spoke out against memorializing the Confederate figure on campus.

“Right now, we do have a memorial on campus,” Little said. “A memorial to white supremacy, and to slave owners. And to people who murdered my ancestors.”

UNC Chancellor Dr. Carol L. Folt said, in a statement, that the monument “has been divisive for years and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people not only on our campus but throughout the community.”

“However, last night’s actions were unlawful and dangerous, and we are very fortunate that no one was injured,” her message continued.

In a Twitter post, UNC officials said, “We are investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage.”

Quoting the university’s Tweet, Dr. John Bowles, associate professor of African American art and Faculty Affiliate at the Institute of African American Research at UNC, said the university’s statement about Silent Sam was “cowardly.”

“This is a cowardly statement. @UNC should have removed Silent Sam long before the students did,” Bowles posted.

Dr. Sarah Beetham, assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and an expert on Confederate monuments, said she had been following the controversy surrounding Silent Sam for a long time. She added that she was shocked, but not surprised to learn about the statue’s demise.

“The students made a strong case that the monument was explicitly tied up with White supremacy, thanks to the speech by Julian Carr at the 1913 dedication that bared the monument’s racist intentions,” Beetham said.

Because of a 2015 North Carolina law that prevents the removal, relocation or alteration of public monuments, memorials and plaques without the permission of the N.C. Historical Commission, and reluctance from university officials to challenge the law, Beetham added that she understands why students took action.

“I can understand why the student groups felt unheard and frustrated, and with so much stacked against a civil resolution to their demands, I am not at all surprised that they chose an extralegal response instead,” she said. “To me, last night’s action appears to have been carefully planned and orchestrated, and shows what a determined group of activists can carry out with enough strength of will.

First-year UNC student Natalia Walker told The Daily Tarheel, “I feel liberated — like I’m a part of something big. It’s literally my fourth day here. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life just activist wise.”

Chris Suggs, a sophomore who is involved with the Black Student Movement at UNC, said that he has been aware of calls for Silent Sam’s removal long before his time at the university. Although the method of the statue’s removal was “unfortunate,” it was inevitable, he added.

“Student organizers and advocacy groups had peacefully been asking for it to be moved, contextualized or removed for years,” Suggs said. “It could’ve been placed in a museum and used as a historical learning tool, or even provided educational signage at the former location – but as it stood, it was just a monument romanticizing a very dark period in our country’s history, and students felt it needed to go.”

Many believe that Silent Sam’s removal – coming nearly a year after the violent protests in Charlottesville – will spark a wave of continued activism and civic engagement on college campuses about reconsidering memorials or buildings honoring racist figures of the past.

“As one of the nation’s most prominent institutions of higher learning, I believe the removal of Silent Sam will spark some much needed conversations and actions across our country on what needs to be done to these statues,” Suggs said.

Beetham agrees. “I expect that student groups at other campuses across the country are watching [UNC] closely today, and planning their own actions.”

Cravey, the UNC professor, expects to see more demonstrations and conversations on campuses that speak to confronting institutions’ history and racial injustices.

“In a place like our campus that is so old and historic and part of the historic South, those building names and that White supremacist history is just so dense, so I think both things are going to be necessary in a place like this where there’s conversations and learning, but also some renaming and reconsideration.”

Further, she hopes campus leaders recognize the significance and power of exploring the university’s history and involvement in Jim Crow and other racial injustices “as a way to heal, but as a way to also chart our path into the future,” she said.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon. Monica Levitan can be reached at mlevitan@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @monlevy_.

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