CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Less than two weeks after a group of protesters brought a century-old statue of a Confederate soldier crashing down here, the sloping lawns of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveal some signs of what happened and a lot of uncertainty about what comes next. While many argue that the statue, which they see as a relic of racism, should disappear forever, school officials indicated Friday that the statue could be restored — perhaps in a less-prominent location on campus.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said in a news conference Friday that the divisive “Silent Sam” statue doesn’t belong at the public university’s “front door,” but she said she also believes that the statue means different things to different people, and that the icon that many see as a memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers, some of them family members, “has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught.”
“I hope we can agree that there is a difference between those who commemorate their fallen and people who want a restoration of white rule,” Folt said, noting that the disputes around the monument are about profound struggles of race, inclusion, history and honor that the nation needs to resolve.
The towering pedestal from which “Silent Sam” gazed out, gun in hand, is now empty, surrounded by metal crowd-control barricades, with an ankle-turning dent marking where he plunged headfirst into the ground. The grass has been trampled by protesters who have skirmished and celebrated here, some cheering the downfall of what they deem a racist icon, others mourning the loss of what they view as an important historic marker.
For a while, a bouquet sat inside the barriers with a card inscribed to “James J. Cherry,” one of the Confederate Roanoke Minute Men and a member of the Class of 1862 who “died on the field of honor.”
Some visitors continue to lament the sacrifices made by young men who abandoned their studies here to fight — and die — for a cause they believed in.
“Their bodies are who knows where. What do they have?” said Sandra Aldridge, who spat in disgust as she circled the railings after coming to campus for an appointment. “If you don’t like something, you don’t just tear it down.”
Decades of internal debate about the statue and its prominence on this Southern campus have escalated into a politicized public drama, one heightened by the similarities to the controversy in Charlottesville a year ago, which erupted into a rally that turned fatal after white nationalists and others objected to the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Silent Sam long has been a flash point, facing defiantly to the north, overseeing a main entryway to UNC’s historic campus.
But the symbolism of this particular bronze effigy of an adolescent soldier became all the more polarizing after documents in the university’s archives revealed the white supremacist language used at its 1913 dedication, including a gleeful account of whipping a young black woman. In the wake of the Charlottesville violence, tensions heightened further in April after Maya Little, a history graduate student, was arrested for daubing the monument with red ink and her own blood.
The statue was brought down the day before classes started for the fall semester by protesters who gathered in solidarity with Little.
Some members of this liberal North Carolina community now envision another, potentially more painful, battle if the UNC system’s governing body, whose members were chosen by the state’s Republican-held General Assembly, decrees the statue should be reinstalled.
“It’s not over yet,” said Justis Malker, a 17-year-old freshman who was among the crowd when protesters felled the statue the day after he moved onto campus from his home in Indian Land, S.C. “If it goes up, it is bigger than the statue, bigger than the university,” he said, recasting a battle over history as one about contemporary morality. “You allow the ideals of white supremacy to win.”
The administration blamed the statue’s toppling on outside agitators, said W. Fitzhugh “Fitz” Brundage, a history professor whose research helped surface the statue’s inflammatory backstory. “It could get far worse.”
ACTBAC — a group from nearby Alamance County that formed to protect local Confederate markers following protests in 2015 — gathered for a twilight service at the site Thursday. They carried red signs with the message “Save our monuments. Preserve our history” up to the statue’s plinth, where they unfurled a giant Confederate flag. They were outnumbered by a gathering of about 200 counterprotesters who distributed glowsticks and danced, before following ACTBAC off campus with chants of “Nazis, go home!” Police twice used pepper spray on the restive crowd and made three arrests for resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer. None of the three was affiliated with the university.
Pressed to act this week, the university system’s statewide Board of Governors met behind closed doors Tuesday, then punted, setting a Nov. 15 deadline for UNC at Chapel Hill’s chancellor and Board of Trustees to present a “lawful and lasting” plan to preserve the sculpture, which was hauled away to a secret location.
Folt, who decried the way the statue was pulled down, left options open earlier this week, including “a location on campus to display the monument in a place of prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access, where we can ensure public safety, ensure the monument’s preservation and place in the history of UNC and the nation.”
She said on Friday that she wanted to provide a “safe and welcoming front door” for the university, anticipating a long, democratic process to decide the statue’s placement on campus.
The most prominent advocate for reinstating the soldier is Thom Goolsby, a former Republican state senator and member of the governing board who posted a video on YouTube and sent a letter to fellow board members. “We have no option other than remounting the monument without delay,” he told them.
Goolsby based his argument on state legislation that passed in 2015, shortly after white supremacist Dylann Roof slaughtered nine black members of a Charleston Church, an attack that prompted widespread efforts to eradicate Confederate markers. The North Carolina law restricts the removal and relocation of monuments on public property and gives a 90-day deadline for a statue that has been temporarily removed to be put back.
“We have to obey the law,” Goolsby said in an interview. “It’s that simple, that simple for me.”
Lindsay Ayling, 30, a history graduate student and activist, challenged Goolsby’s interpretation, citing Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who sent a letter to UNC system president Margaret Spellings a year ago saying the law allows officials “to take steps in the interest of avoiding “threats to public safety” and called recently for legislators to change the law. And lawyer Hampton Dellinger has threatened legal action on the grounds that the statue creates a hostile environment at the public school — in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The statue “should have been taken down to comply with federal law,” Dellinger said.
Universities have tackled the more painful aspects of their history in different ways. Some have dug deeply into the impact of slavery. Others have removed monuments — as Duke University did a year ago when protesters vandalized a Lee statue — or built new ones.
In 2005, UNC installed an Unsung Founders Memorial not far from Silent Sam, dedicated to “the people of color bound and free who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.”
Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., where Lee is buried, just concluded a year-long examination of its history. William Dudley, the president, announced Tuesday the creation of a museum to explore the school’s past, including the contributions of enslaved people.
“It feels like the country is kind of on a knife’s edge about this,” said Don Taylor, chair of the academic council at Duke, where the history department has asked the university to rename the building in which they work so that it no longer honors the donor Julian Shakespeare Carr, who also made the explosive 1913 dedication speech at UNC. They instead would like to pay tribute to Raymond Gavins, Duke’s first black professor of history.
“Universities need to provide an example of how to do this deliberately and thoughtfully, using our scholarship,” Taylor said.
In a debate often cast as history vs. hate, UNC historians have used scholarship to reveal the racist intent behind Silent Sam, a work commissioned half a century after the Civil War to honor “the sons of the university who entered the war of 1861-65 in answer to the call of their country.”
Brundage was working with colleagues on a project to digitize information about monuments of all kinds across the state when one of his graduate students began combing university archives for information about Silent Sam.
Adam Domby, now on the faculty of South Carolina’s College of Charleston, found the speech that Carr, a successful industrialist, gave at the statue’s dedication. The speech praised Confederate soldiers whose “courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”
Domby read on.
“One hundred yards from where we stand,” the document said, “I horsewhipped 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.”
The discovery, which Domby recounted in a 2011 letter in the student newspaper, helped focus attention on the need for greater examination of UNC’s past.
Some students pressed for more context. One 2012 proposal said, “Our intent is not to remove monuments or revise history; rather, we seek to challenge the university to provide a more complete historical narrative.”
In 2015, Saunders Hall, which once housed the history department, was renamed Carolina Hall to remove the reference to purported 19th-century Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders. In September of the same year, the school created a task force to examine how it told its own history. More recently, a group from UNC has been working with the Universities Studying Slavery consortium started at U-Va.
But Silent Sam survived.
“I think the administration has essentially neglected its fundamental duty,” said William Sturkey, an assistant professor of history. “It has basically taken a position of silence.”
Some, including Brundage, view the tensions as a reflection of a growing ideological divide between the left-leaning campus and its Board of Governors, appointed by a General Assembly that turned Republican in 2010 for the first time in more than a century. Sturkey said the board, the majority of whose members are white men, is inherently political.
The result has been polarized — and polarizing — debate.
“In reality, there are a range of views, a wide middle of people in the community who engage in thoughtful discussion,” said Cecelia Moore, who serves on UNC’s history task force.
The prevailing anti-Sam sentiment on campus has silenced some dissenters who fear being branded as racist, said Psalms White, 21, a senior who said she has tried to keep discussions open even as she protests the statue, just as her mother did 30 years ago.
One senior, who has been creating a photographic history of the spot where Silent Sam stood, said the ongoing controversy causes some African American students to reevaluate their relationship to the school.
“I’ve been taken aback by the response of the administration,” said Courtney Staton, 20, who said she was saddened that anyone would consider putting the statue up again.
For Bryce Bentinck, who was on a college visit with his mother from Connecticut, the empty pedestal offered some hope.
“I would have been here to support the movement” to remove the statue, said Bentinck, who is biracial. He viewed the void, for now, as a sign that UNC is “a place that can change and adapt.”
Svrluga reported from Washington. Kirk Ross, in Chapel Hill, contributed to this report.