The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most people mad at the removal of UNC’s Silent Sam don’t know what it’s like to walk past the statue. I do.

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)

Given our current political climate, it was only a matter of time before a Confederate memorial on the campus of my alma mater came down. The only thing that surprises me is that it didn’t happen sooner or, perhaps, more violently.

The Post’s Susan Svrluga wrote:

A crowd toppled a Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina on Monday night, with cheers and smoke bombs filling the air.
The monument had long been a target of students and others, a symbol of a once-honored past that many wanted to demolish. This spring, a graduate student splashed a mixture of ink and her own blood on the statue. On the night before classes began this year, a crowd gathered to demonstrate at the statue and, using ropes, pulled it down.

It wasn’t the first time that critics of the controversial statue sought to destroy it. There was a letter-writing campaign criticizing it during the civil rights movement. Decades later, in 2015, while communities across the country reexamined the place of Confederate memorials in today’s society, the words “KKK” and “Black Lives Matter” were spray-painted on the statue.

The first tale I heard about Silent Sam as a freshman at the University of North Carolina was often attacked for its roots in gender norms that aren’t uncommon in some traditional Southern environments. As the News and Observer reported: “The old schoolboy myth about Silent Sam says that if a virgin — presumably female — walks past, Sam will fire his weapon in recognition.”

But the real story behind Silent Sam is much darker, because it’s not rooted in folklore but in one of the darker truths of North Carolina’s — and America’s — history. As Svrluga reported:

“In Chapel Hill, N.C., the bronze and marble Silent Sam monument was commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy and erected in 1913 to honor UNC alumni who died for the Confederacy.”

For more than a century, individuals walking across the northernmost part of campus at the country’s first public university often set eyes on Silent Sam, one of the tallest — and most offensive — monuments on campus.

But for most of the 100-plus years that Silent Sam stood on the campus, what people did not see was a memorial honoring the black people enslaved by the university and others who built some of UNC’s oldest buildings. While UNC became America’s first public university in 1789, it was not until 2005 that it dedicated a much smaller, less visible and not nearly as grand statue recognizing the enslaved black people whose blood and sweat built the university.

As I tweeted the news about the destruction of Silent Sam, I was greeted with much pushback. Some people seemed to question the very fact that enslaved black people helped build the university and wanted names of those involved as proof. Others protested the method in which Silent Sam was removed, cautioning against the spread of anarchy and advocating for confidence in the state legislature’s process to remove similar memorials.

Given the elevated profile of white supremacy in these fraught times, fears that the worldview that led to the erection of Silent Sam could become more dominant should outweigh concerns about a student body that is no longer interested in looking up to a memorial that celebrates “the purest strains of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

Based on the Twitter photos and bios of those objecting to my tweet, I’m guessing none of these individuals knows what it is like to be a descendant of black people who were enslaved in North Carolina and to be studying on a campus that repeatedly honored those who supported that very enslavement. I do.

And for me, my main hope is that future Tar Heels who look like me — and who look nothing like me — can complete their college education in an environment that does not include a statue that was dedicated with a KKK supporter recounting how he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.”

For those most concerned about honoring Southern culture, there has to be a way to do so without continuing to romanticize the dehumanizing abuse of some of the people who have made some of the most significant contributions — and sacrifices — to the South. I am confident that if there is a place that has the ability to do this honorably, it is the University of North Carolina. It is more than past time.