The University of North Carolina's Silent Sam Statue Represents a Legacy of White Supremacy

The presence of a statue of a Confederate soldier on the UNC campus is an attack upon those who make this place their home and workplace.

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Jan 29 2015, 10:15pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Yellowspacehopper

Everyday, on my way to teach and research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have to passSilent Sam, the statue of a Confederate soldier erected with the intention of symbolizing the 321 UNC alumni who died fighting to maintain a way of life built on the oppression and degradation of black people.

Apologists for Silent Sam like to mention that the soldier's belt has no cartridge box, rendering his gun useless. The soldier, facing north as an eternal defender against Union aggression, cannot commit real violence. His weapon is supposed to be an empty symbol. But for many members of the UNC community, Silent Sam's presence is itself an act of violence. It's an attack upon those who make this campus their place of education, work, and residence. Tomorrow, they will be speaking out by forming a rally at 12:10 PM in front of the Silent Sam to voice their discontent with this and other symbols of white supremacy on our campus.

A few yards from Silent Sam stands the Unsung Founders memorial. It's intended to honor the contributions of African American labor, "bond and free," to the building of the university. The memorial consists of a table supported by 300 statues of black people. These statues, standing maybe a foot high each, literally bear the weight of visitors' picnics on their bodies while a larger-than-life white man with a gun stands high above them on his pedestal. The relationship between these monuments replicates the social order that Silent Sam upholds.

Silent Sam appeared in 1913 amid a wave of Confederate memorials popping up throughout the South. "If the Confederacy had raised proportionately as many soldiers as the postwar South raised monuments," quipped Civil War historian James M. McPherson, "the Confederates might have won the war." These monuments were not simply tributes to the dead; their construction participated in an active rewriting of Confederate history in which the slaveowners' rebellion was transformed into a Southern freedom struggle against Northern oppression.

The proliferation of Confederate monuments, championed by groups such as the Daughters of the Confederacy, also occurred alongside Southern states' successful disenfranchisement of the Black vote and rise of Jim Crow laws. Like the legal enforcement of segregation, Confederate memorials such as Silent Sam served to inscribe a particular vision of the South onto public spaces. As much as Silent Sam honors fallen members of the UNC community, the statue also preserves white supremacy as an enduring value of that community.

At Silent Sam's dedication, industrialist Julian Carr spoke of the Confederacy's "battles in defense of Southern liberty and Southern honor," and honored its soldiers as having "saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South." He also mentioned that just 100 yards from the monument, he personally "horse-whipped a Negro wench, until her skirt hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady." These are the values for which Silent Sam stands with rifle in hand. (Carr, incidentally, is also honored on campus with a building in his name.)

A UNC residence hall also bears the name of Thomas Ruffin, the North Carolina Supreme Court justice who wrote the decision in State v. Mann, which ruled in favor of a man who whipped his slave and then shot her when she attempted to escape. Ruffin declared that to preserve the "full dominion of the owner over the slave," there could be no legal restrictions on a master's treatment of his slaves. Ruffin ruled that because slaves were property, they could not pursue legal recourses against their masters.

Tributes to white supremacists are sprinkled across the campus landscape: Spencer Hall is named for Cornelia Phillips Spencer (Phillips Hall is named after her father and brothers), the anti-Reconstructionist who famously rang the bell to reopen UNC after working to ensure that black students would be barred from admission; Hamilton Hall is named after UNC professor and Jim Crow supporter J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton; the Daniels Building is named after Josephus Daniels, newspaper editor, champion for black disenfranchisement, inciter of race riots, and leading voice in what he literally called the "White Supremacy Campaign."

In the case that personally hits me the hardest, the building in which I work, Saunders Hall, is named for William L. Saunders, a Confederate colonel and founding figure in North Carolina's Ku Klux Klan. Invoking the Fifth Amendment to avoid revealing his relationship to the Klan before a Congressional committee, Saunders famously replied, "I decline to answer" to so many questions that the phrase was put on his tombstone.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The naming of campus buildings after these individuals honors their various contributions to the life of the university and surrounding communities. The university must decide, however, whether tributes to the dead are worth committing violence against living members of the UNC community—students, faculty, and staff whose mere presence at UNC would have been an unthinkable nightmare to figures such as Saunders.

I will say it again: These names constitute acts of violence against the UNC community. Writing on the racism of UNC's landscape way back in 2002, Yoni Chapman, then a grad student in the history department, mentioned an African American student who became physically sick whenever entering Saunders for classes. That was 13 years ago. As students today pass through the doors of Saunders Hall, they are still institutionally coerced into recognition of the Ku Klux Klan. The secret history behind Saunders Hall is no secret at all, but widely transmitted as campus oral tradition. It continues to shame us.

For years, students have worked to challenge the racism in UNC's culture of names and monuments. This Friday, hundreds of members of the UNC community are gathering at Silent Sam and will make three demands: First, that Saunders Hall is renamed Hurston Hall, in honor of Zora Neale Hurston; second, that Silent Sam bears a plaque directly addressing the history behind the statue; third, that orientation for incoming students includes a curriculum that contextualizes UNC's racial history.

Silent Sam, of course, has never been silent. Upon his arrival in 1913, he loudly proclaimed the university to be a white domain, offering himself as a campus placeholder for white supremacy. Silent Sam embodied lamentation for the dead in a race war, defenders of a world in which black women could be "horse-whipped" for saying the wrong thing to white women. Sadly, this was what it meant in 1913 for Silent Sam to represent the UNC community. A century later, Silent Sam continues to speak. If the solution is not to pull the statue out of the ground altogether, we can at least make Silent Sam speak for and to a UNC that he never could have imagined or accepted. Confronting and rewriting the meanings that have been inscribed on our landmarks, we can give the campus map a voice that represents everyone who contributes to UNC's histories and futures.

Michael Muhammad Knight is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter.

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