Trustees | Trusteeship

How to close the Silent Sam divide

THE NEWS & OBSERVER   |  February 13, 2019 by Michael Poliakoff

There seems to be no end in sight to the intense fighting over Silent Sam, the University of North Carolina monument that honors those students who fought in the Confederate army, and no one is likely to emerge the winner.

At this moment, Silent Sam is neither standing, nor even in sight, and two talented administrators, Carol Folt, chancellor of the UNC–Chapel Hill flagship campus and Margaret Spellings, president of the UNC system, are leaving office well ahead of the dates they previously announced. Some members of the UNC Board of Governors insist that the statue must be placed once more exactly where it has been for 106 years.

Let us be clear, there is little that makes Silent Sam an appropriate monument to restore to its previous, prominent position on campus. It honors UNC students who joined the army that fought to defend slavery. The statue, moreover, has had a long and unsavory popularity with white supremacists, beginning with its dedication in 1913. Yet, the decision of those students more than a century and a half ago to join the Confederate forces still has a historical resonance worthy of consideration: what led them to fight so bravely for a cause so morally wrong?

Silent Sam’s relocation could thus have moral authority. Vigorous debate about its relocation would be exactly what a flagship university should do well. There are even some models of potentially fraught relocations that have worked in this way.

In the 2015–16 academic year, Princeton University faced demands to change the name of its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. As is now well-known, Wilson demonstrated a deep and damaging racism during his time in office as president of Princeton and later as president of the United States. Princeton took up the controversy, sought feedback, and gave a voice to every interested party in its community. When Princeton finally determined that it would keep Woodrow Wilson’s name on the School of Public and International Affairs, along with clear descriptions of the damage he inflicted on African Americans, the situation resolved into general acceptance of the compromise.

The University of Texas–Austin, not surprisingly, faced demands in 2015 to remove its statue of Jefferson Davis. After careful deliberation, the University relocated the Jefferson Davis statue to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

And perhaps we could take a lead from Nelson Mandela. The extended and extreme suffering that the apartheid regime inflicted on him is beyond dispute. Also beyond dispute is the culpability of Cecil Rhodes in building the systematic structures of racial oppression. But Mandela did not call for the removal of the monuments to Rhodes: he joined in the formation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which supports the postgraduate work of students from Africa. Nelson Mandela drew authority for this initiative from the South African constitution to “come together across the historical divides.”

To “come together across the historical divides.” This is likely the success that UNC’s campus leaders tried to replicate with the relocation of the statue to the proposed history center. The UNC Board of Governors needs to look past the partisan winner-takes-all strategy that is doomed to failure and might even ignite campus violence. A compromise that candidly embraces, engages, and explains our history is the only way forward.


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