UNC history professor questions who has authority to remove 'Silent Sam'
Posted August 24
Chapel Hill, N.C. — A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student and another man arrested during Tuesday’s protests of the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue appeared in court Thursday as several UNC student organizations continue to demand that the statue be removed from campus.
A law passed in 2015 states that historical monuments like Silent Sam can be altered or removed only with the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.
The governor appoints members of the commission, but while Gov. Roy Cooper has called for the removal of Confederate statues, Republican lawmakers wrote the law narrowly and essentially gave no true enforcement power to the commission.
“As I read the statute, the Historical Commission does not have the authority to remove statue or give anybody else permission to remove monuments simply based on its own discretion,” said UNC history professor Harry Watson, who served for 12 years on the Historical Commission. "I think the legislature was trying to prevent situations like the one that we are facing right now."
Watson teaches history and the Civil War at UNC and said his opinions on removing monuments have evolved over time. He said he no longer sees the monuments as teaching opportunities and is calling on his administration to act on its own authority.
"Since they're not serving a constructive purpose and since the purpose they are serving is negative, I'd say it's time to go ahead and take them down," he said.
Threat to public safety is one of the provisions allowing removal of a monument, but that’s a matter of interpretation.
“I think conditions on the campus could be interpreted as a danger to public safety,” Watson said.
Cooper issued a statement on Monday saying UNC system officials have the authority to remove the statue if they believe it is posing a risk to public safety, but a university spokesperson said administrators believe the university does not legally have the authority to remove the Silent Sam statue unless a building inspector concludes physical disrepair of the statue poses a threat to public safety.
Legislative leaders have indicated they don’t want monuments removed, and they hold the purse strings to UNC and the boards that hire and fire leadership.
"I don't think we can allow people to break the law. Vandalism is not the answer," said Senate leader Phil Berger. "We have a law in place and there's a process in connection with that law."
On Wednesday night, student organizations sent a statement to Chancellor Carol Folt, Cooper, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the North Carolina Historical Commission stating that the student community will continue to "act and fight every single day until Silent Sam is taken down – one way or another.
"The university's claims of prioritizing student safety and protection are deceptive. As the events of Charlottesville and Durham have shown, Confederate statues have become a symbol and rallying point for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and alt-right organizations," the statement read.
Gregory Williams, one of the men arrested at Tuesday's protest, was charged with wearing a mask on public property and resisting an officer. Charges will be dropped against Williams if he does not commit any criminal offenses, pays court costs and completes 24 hours of community service by Feb. 22, 2018.
The case against Claude Wilson, the UNC student who was attested, was continued until Sept. 26.