The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Silent Sam’: A racist Jim Crow-era speech inspired UNC students to topple a Confederate monument on campus

Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took down the controversial Confederate statue Silent Sam on Aug. 20. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post, Photo: Julia Wall/The News & Observer/The Washington Post)

This story has been updated.

In 1913, Julian Carr, a prominent industrialist and supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, was invited to speak at the unveiling of a statue of a Confederate soldier on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It had been placed there by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Carr’s lengthy address made clear the symbolism of the statue. First, he credited Confederate soldiers with saving “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” adding, “to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.”

Then, he went on to tell a personal story.

“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal,” Carr said. “One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped 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, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”

On Monday night, when the statue that he had dedicated was pulled from its pedestal by a crowd of protesters, Carr’s boastful reference to brutally beating a black woman wasn’t far from mind. The rally began as a demonstration of solidarity with Maya Little, who was arrested in April after reading aloud from Carr’s speech and covering the statue with red ink and her own blood. Little, a graduate student in history, faces charges of defacing a public monument, according to the Daily Tar Heel.

Early Monday evening, student activists covered the statue — now known as “Silent Sam” — with gray fabric banners. One read, “For a world without white supremacy.”

Another listed victims of racial violence, beginning with “Unnamed Black woman beaten by Julian Carr.”

Hours later, after darkness fell, those banners ended up providing cover for protesters. They tied ropes around the statue and toppled it to the ground, according to the Daily Tar Heel. Cheering and shouting, they began covering the statue with mud and dirt.

“I watched it groan and shiver and come asunder,” Dwayne Dixon, an Asian studies professor at UNC, told the Daily Tar Heel. “I mean, it feels biblical. It’s thundering and starting to rain. It’s almost like heaven is trying to wash away the soiled contaminated remains.”

Early Tuesday morning, the statue was hauled away in a dump truck.

In recent years, the Carr speech, as it’s known on campus, has been a galvanizing force for activists demanding the statue’s removal. But it was largely forgotten until 2009, when Adam Domby, then a graduate student in history, came across it in the university’s archives.

Now an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston and the author of a forthcoming book titled “The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory,” Domby told The Washington Post on Monday night that the speech’s blatant celebration of white supremacy is noteworthy.

“Carr made it explicitly clear that this was about the use of violence,” he said.

In 2011, Domby wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Daily Tar Heel, quoting from Carr’s speech in hopes of adding some historical context to the debate. Activists picked it up and ran with it, he said, making the racist language in the 1913 address a major issue in the campaign to remove the statue.

Meanwhile, the events of Charleston and Charlottesville prompted a national controversy about the appropriateness of displaying Confederate symbols. The statue was repeatedly targeted with protests and vandalized on more than one occasion.

Though Domby says he has largely stayed to the sidelines while UNC debates whether to remove the statue — “I think that ultimately my opinion matters a lot less than the communities that are there,” he explains — he’s also heard from people who say that reading Carr’s speech had forced them to truly understand what the monument means.

“There’s a difference between history and celebration,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to stop teaching the Civil War just because we don’t have this monument.”

He added: “I can teach them in class about Jim Crow, but I need them to feel comfortable walking to my class.”

On Monday night, the mood among African American alumni was “celebratory,” said Hilary Green, who received a PhD in history from UNC-Chapel Hill. Now an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, Green told The Post that she teaches the history of Silent Sam in her classes.

“For me, as a Tar Heel and especially as an African American Tar Heel, I’m glad,” she said. “I know what that monument means. I know what the symbolism means to students.”

Not everyone on campus was happy. Zachary Kosnitzky, a student in the class of 2020 who has written for the conservative Carolina Review and recently joined the Daily Tar Heel as a political columnist,  characterized the toppling of the statue as “mob rule.”

“I understand why they want what they want,” he told The Post. “I think it’s a reasonable goal. I just think the way they went about it is improper.”

The students who showed up for the protest represent a small minority of the campus, he said. Most students, he believes, are ambivalent about Silent Sam.

Others oppose the protests taking place around the statue but are “too afraid of backlash to voice their opinion publicly,” he said.

“A lot of students feel that they’ll suffer backlash from professors and peers if they get in the way of this group of students [who want to remove the statue],” he said. “Frankly, it’s disappointing. It weakens the discourse.”

In a statement issued early Tuesday morning, Chancellor Carol L. Folt acknowledged that the monument had been “divisive” and “a source of frustration for many people not only on our campus but throughout the community.”

However, she wrote, pulling down the statue was “unlawful and dangerous, and we are very fortunate that no one was injured.”

The university is investigating the vandalism and assessing the full extent of the damage, she added.

According to WRAL, one individual was arrested at the protest and charged with resisting arrest and concealing their face during a public rally.

Several alumni told The Post that they blamed UNC’s administration for not removing Silent Sam last August, when North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, told university officials that the statue could be removed if they believed that “there is a real risk to public safety.” The university told the News and Observer in Raleigh that they disagreed with Cooper’s legal analysis and believed that removing the statue would violate a 2015 law that forbids taking down public monuments without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.

“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.

Watching the protests from home, Cox, who has written op-eds advocating the removal of Confederate monuments for The Post and other outlets, said that she felt as if a new generation had spoken. Monuments reflect the generation that put them up, she said, and Silent Sam had been a reflection of the Jim Crow generation and its celebration of white supremacy.

“This generation of Southerners, of students, is saying something different,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘This does not represent us.’ ”

Both Cox and Domby said that it had been gratifying to see history informing the protests.

“This was probably the most important research I’ve done in my life, far more than any peer-reviewed publication,” Domby said. “I tell my students, ‘Don’t underestimate what your research can do.’ ”

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