Silent Sam is down. How will communities respond?

domby silent sam

Silent Sam during a student protest in March 2018 (Photo credit: Adam Domby)

A little over a year ago, after activists in Durham, North Carolina tore down the local Confederate monument in an act of civil disobedience, I predicted that more monuments would follow. It took a little longer than I expected, but last night, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled Silent Sam, the 1913 Confederate soldier monument that has long been a locus for controversy. At least as early as the 1960s, the statue was debated as a symbol of racism and white supremacy, and acts of vandalism and calls for removal have dogged the statue (For a complete timeline of events, click here).

But in the three years since the June 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina reignited the debate over the future of Confederate monuments, the controversy surrounding Silent Sam has intensified. In July 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill prohibiting communities from removing “objects of remembrance” commemorating “an event, person or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history” without permission from the General Assembly. Since then, student groups have increased pressure on the university to find a way to remove Silent Sam. The statue has also been defaced several times, notably in May 2018 when Maya Little painted the monument with a mixture of red paint and her own blood. It was in support of Maya Little that last night’s “Until They All Fall” rally was held.

Early in the evening, activists obscured Silent Sam with banners, and under the cover of these banners, they tied ropes around the statue and brought it down. It will now be up to the university and the North Carolina legislature to assess the extent of the statue’s damage and to decide what to do next.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published excellent pieces covering last night’s events in Chapel Hill. The Post in particular spoke at length with Dr. Adam Domby, who as a graduate student in 2009 uncovered a shockingly racist speech given by Julian Carr at Silent Sam’s 1913 dedication, and the article is worth reading in full. But I’d like to call attention to remarks by Dr. Karen Cox, who has been an outspoken critic of the continued presence of Confederate monuments in public space:

“People seem to be at their wit’s end,” said Karen Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”

“When people feel they’re not being heard, when people don’t have a place at the table, then this is the result,” she said.

By passing laws to control the handling of Confederate monuments at the state level, states like North Carolina have closed nearly all avenues for resolving the current debate through compromise. It should be up to local communities to decide how to maintain their public spaces and what to do with the monuments in their care. Instead, draconian laws prevent civil discourse, and extralegal action in the dead of night is the result.

It is time for these state “preservation” laws to be overturned so that communities can make their own decisions about their monuments through discussion and compromise. At this point, it is unlikely that amendment through new text or additional statuary will be enough to calm current unrest. But it is still possible to find a home for these statues away from public life, in which they can be warehoused and contextualized as the material culture of a divisive era. Those who wish to preserve the statues for their historical significance or artistic merit would do well to resist state laws that restrict local action and strangle debate: the alternative is a polarized landscape in which the events of Durham and Chapel Hill will likely continue to occur.