The remains of the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue have been removed from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a step approved by the university’s chancellor in a Monday statement that also announced her plans to resign at the end of the semester.
The statue, which honors “sons of the university who died for their beloved Southland” during the Civil War, has served as a flashpoint at the university, where students demanding its removal clashed with white supremacists defending the statue and provoked the ire of more mainstream politicians who enshrined protection for the statue—and all Confederate monuments—in state law. While the statue’s base and commemorative plaques have remained in place, the statue itself has been removed from public view since being toppled by protesters in August, as school officials debated its future. In early December, the university had announced a plan to erect a $5.3 million “history and education center” to house the statue, but the proposal drew further protests and was rejected by the university’s board of governors out of safety and financial concerns.
In her statement, Carol Folt announced that she had authorized the removal of the statue’s base. “As chancellor, the safety of the UNC-Chapel Hill community is my clear, unequivocal and non-negotiable responsibility,” she said in the statement. “The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment.”
The UNC Board of Trustees publicly supported Folt’s decision, but the chair of the UNC Board of Governors (the statewide panel that oversees North Carolina’s public universities) released a statement Monday condemning her actions and vowing that a “clear process and timeline for determining the best course of action for the future of the Monument” as the board had planned would continue.
We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action. It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the Board’s goal to operate with class and dignity. We strive to ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are always involved and that we are always working in a healthy and professional manner.
Moving forward, the Board will continue to work tirelessly and collaboratively with all relevant parties to determine the best way forward for UNC-Chapel Hill. We will do so with proper governance and oversight in a way that respects all constituencies and diverse views on this issue.
Silent Sam was, like many Confederate statues of the Lost Cause movement, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy during an early Jim Crow wave of monument-building (a later wave during the civil rights movement would reinforce the perception that these monuments were intended as a racial message rather than historical commemoration). In 2015, as the country launched a national debate over Confederate monuments in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting that left nine black worshippers dead at the hands of a white supremacist, students and faculty protested Silent Sam—and, in response, the North Carolina Legislature passed a law banning any monuments on public grounds from being relocated without the permission of a state commission tasked with placing the monuments in a place of “visibility and honor.”
In August 2018, a year after the clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, again revived the Confederate monument debate, students protested Silent Sam once more, this time pulling it down from its base entirely. A debate followed as to what to do with the statue, as some school officials felt stuck between the students’ demands and the requirements of the 2015 law. After the $5.3 million building proposal was announced, protesters accused the university of protecting a statue they saw as enshrining white supremacy, and others accused the university of abandoning its responsibilities to its black students to bow to conservative donors.