The Silent Sam Saga

UNC's Silent Sam statue toppled

UNC's Silent Sam statue toppled
Once upon a time, a group of women who had lost their fathers and husbands to war, raised enough money to erect a statue in honor of their fallen loved ones. That group was the Daughters of the Confederacy, and, over time, their statue of a rifle-bearing soldier affectionately became known as “Silent Sam”. Sam was a different kind of Confederate memorial. His sole purpose was to honor members of the UNC family who had been killed in a not so Civil War. Sam was not a lionized General, or a cruel slave master. He was a benign figure who even became part of a humorous legend around the Chapel Hill campus. As the joke went, if a virgin ever walked past Sam, he would fire his rifle (he never had to). Humor aside, though, the statue was to have been a quiet reminder of lives cut short. But Sam’s 1913 dedication was marred by the vile remarks of Julian Carr, a Confederate veteran who, in his speech, bragged about flogging a female negro slave. The text of Carr’s shameful remarks was re-discovered in 2009, and, ever since then, Silent Sam went from being a well-intentioned memorial, to a hated symbol of white supremacy.

And so, as an increasing number of Confederate statues have been defaced or removed this year, it was just a matter of time before Silent Sam would be targeted by protestors. That time arrived on Monday, August 20, when a gang of UNC students toppled Sam from his perch. YouTube videos of the angry mob put me in mind of Iraqi citizens who toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or Parisians who took to the streets and defaced portraits of Hitler after WWII.

One can argue that the 5% of American Southerners who owned slaves were as bad as Hitler and Saddam, and that beatings and lynchings were no less shameful than firing squads and gas chambers. But the privileged young people who toppled Silent Sam last month were not celebrating the death of a recently deposed tyrant. There was no sense of immediacy to their actions, nor would their destructive behavior end racism. If anything, their violent act only gave rise to violent reactions.

Last week, the UNC Board gave Carolina’s Chancellor until November to come up with a resolution regarding the disposition of Silent Sam, and I hope that resolution will include putting Sam back where he was, and erecting an additional statue nearby that honors the struggles and achievements of African Americans. Of course, regardless of what UNC decides, we should all recognize that statues are only symbols, and every moment we spend arguing about them is time we could be spending on the fight to repeal racist policies designed to disenfranchise minorities. In other words, getting rid of Silent Sam won’t help us get rid of gerrymandering.

Last month’s UNC mob broke the law. Even worse, they failed to understand that removing history doesn’t change history. Instead, it just delays the lessons we must learn, and the challenges we must face in order to affect real change. The fact is that Silent Sam has a lot to tell us, if we’ll just listen.


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