Lawyers representing a group of students and a professor urged leaders of the University of North Carolina on Wednesday to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier from the Chapel Hill campus, arguing that it violates federal anti-discrimination laws.
The statue honoring University of North Carolina alumni who died for the Confederacy has been controversial for years and a focal point for student protests. In 2015 someone painted “KKK” and “MURDERER” on it.
But after violent clashes followed a white supremacist gathering for a Confederate statue in Charlottesville last month, the fight intensified in Chapel Hill, with hundreds of people chanting, “Tear it down!”
The bronze and marble monument known as “Silent Sam” was erected at the state flagship university in 1913 after being commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy. A side panel shows a woman — symbolizing the state of North Carolina — urging a student to leave his books to fight.
In 2005, the university added a sculpture nearby honoring enslaved African Americans.
Hampton Dellinger, a former deputy attorney general in the North Carolina Department of Justice, and colleagues at a Washington law firm, wrote on behalf of a dozen students, including the president of the campus NAACP chapter, which endorsed it, the UNC Black Law Students Association and a law-school professor. The letter to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC system President Margaret Spellings and their respective boards of trustees begins:
We write on behalf of UNC Chapel Hill students to request that you immediately remove the monument of an armed Confederate soldier, known as Silent Sam, from the middle of campus.
Silent Sam should go for many reasons including its incompatibility with the “inclusive and welcoming environment” promised by UNC’s nondiscrimination policy.
We are providing legal notice of an additional reason why Silent Sam must come down now: the statue violates federal anti-discrimination laws by fostering a racially hostile learning environment.
As UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office acknowledges, federal laws guarantee a series of rights to members of the UNC campus community. Among the applicable laws are Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbid racial discrimination at UNC as an institution of higher learning and a recipient of federal funds.
Because Silent Sam violates the rights guaranteed by these and other federal laws, we request that you authorize its immediate removal in order to avoid needless litigation.
Any federally funded institution (such as UNC) that is deliberately indifferent to a racially hostile learning environment runs afoul of federal law.
But the university has argued that it does not have the legal authority to remove the statue.
In 2015, the state legislature acted to prohibit state agencies from permanently removing any “object of remembrance.”
Joel Curran, a spokesman for the university, wrote in a statement, “We have received the letter and understand that for many people the Confederate Monument’s presence can engender strong emotions, and we are respectful of those emotions.
“While we do not have the unilateral legal authority to move the monument, these students have raised questions about federal civil rights law that will need to be addressed, and we will work with our Board of Trustees and Board of Governors to do so.
“In the meantime, the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History is developing an interpretive plan for McCorkle Place that will include signage presenting historical context of how the monument was erected as part of a broader effort to tell the honest and accurate history of the University.”
After Charlottesville, people have taken down Confederate statues in several cities and campuses, while others have warned that removing historical monuments can create a dangerous whitewashing of history.
Last month, President Trump wrote on social media, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You …
” … can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also …
” … the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
Aaron Epps, one of the students who signed onto the letter, said: “As a black male in the South I can’t help but feel that the statue is disrespectful. … When I first came to campus, I definitely felt like I didn’t belong. Statues like this necessarily contribute to that feeling of not fitting in and not belonging.”
A lot of his friends feel the same way, he said. “That statue is literally a reminder that they’re three-fifths of a person and they don’t belong,” he added.
Read the full letter to UNC about Silent Sam here: