Open LetterPolitics

op-ed: we will never be silent about sam

December 5, 2018
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It was the end of August when students and community activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my alma mater, toppled “Silent Sam,” the Confederate statue that had first been erected in 1913 at the height of America’s cultural whitewashing of the Civil War. Since the removal of Silent Sam from the picturesque quad of McCorkle place, the campus community has weighed in on where the statue should go.  This week we learned that it is to be resurrected in a new location: a $5.3 million “historical Center” charged to better contextualize the University’s history that will be built on the edge of campus.  That’s right, Silent Sam is to be the first announced resident of a brand new multi-million dollar museum, with a proposed annual operating budget of $800,000.  

CHAPEL HILL, NC – AUGUST 22: Demonstrators rally for the removal of a Confederate statue coined Silent Sam on the campus of the University of Chapel Hill on August 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

The rollout of this idea is bound to be rocky, the announcement arriving as a disappointing slap in the face to many who feel an emblem of white supremacy and racism has no place anywhere on campus. This is, after all, a campus where until recently, slave graves were left unkempt, and unmarked; so is announcing a multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art museum with a symbol of the Confederacy any way to start the reconciling of the university’s relationship with white supremacy?!? The answer is a resounding NO!  How many scholarships could this money fund? What types of professorships or meaningful research could this budget support? How are you going to build a mausoleum to a Confederate statue and then consider the other historical elements on balanced footing? With Silent Sam as its mascot, any funding that would support this venture comes tainted.

The optics are horrible. Since Sam will become the proposed history and education Center’s inaugural keystone, its installation instantly overwhelms the building’s mission to properly contextualize the university’s past, requiring the building to install advanced security for protection of the controversial trinket. It is better served in some dark dusty corner of its basement than as a prominent focal point. No one is arguing that history shouldn’t be shared in its entirety — particularly so it does not repeat itself — but Sam shouldn’t be celebrated as the central artifact of a building which is supposed to reflect historical accuracy.  

Students, faculty, and staff have already established the statue as not welcome and the debate swirling around whether to keep it has created an environment that negatively affects them, and threatens everyone’s safety. This campus turmoil is, in fact, entirely counter to the Carolina I experienced as an institution of excellence, a prideful beacon of leadership, not just in the South, but across the nation.  As a Black alum, I find the administration’s indecisive handling of the statue’s removal troubling, and to now learn that the statue is potentially getting elevated status is one of the more disappointing actions I’ve seen this University take. I fear future students deciding on attending UNC will have similar concerns — I know my younger self would have. How much longer before these decisions impact recruitment and retention, especially of faculty and students of color who will wonder whether UNC-Chapel Hill is a place that is welcoming and supportive of them?

Who will curate the Center, and be the arbiter of historical accuracy and reconciliation?  Based on this news, the balance is skewed well in favor of a Confederate statue that casts a stain on our University.  The Center is expected to be completed in 2022, and I’m hopeful the University and its leadership will find a way to make this right and seriously reconsider. Our peers in higher education, including our biggest rival, are doing better on this front than we are; Duke University just announced they are renaming Carr Building after acknowledging representations of white supremacy aren’t appropriate for a premier American university in 2018.

In 2015, former North Carolina Governor Pat McCory signed a state law blocking the removal of Confederate statues without further approval or oversight, and we have to work to change it!  As it stands now, UNC-Chapel Hill’s proposal for this statue is corrupt at inception. I would implore Chancellor Folt, the University’s Board of Trustees, and the system-wide Board of Governors to reconsider this decision, which does nothing to redress the blight of white supremacy and racism that this statue continues to cast.  Some might argue that this criticism is premature, but it is crucial that we continue to drive the discussion with meaningful feedback about how any “historical Center” is planned and what goes in it. Put plainly, we must never be silent about Sam.

Dr. Justin Young is a physician, writer, filmmaker, and world traveler. He is obsessed with politics, movies, and advocacy through storytelling. He has contributed to HuffPost and other media outlets.