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UNC history professor questions who has authority to remove 'Silent Sam'

Posted August 24

— 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.


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  • William Sherman Aug 24, 10:01 p.m.
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    Unfortunately, we will witness yet another government entity caving in to the mere threat of protest and disorder. Rather than bring in a sufficent number of law enforcement officers to control any violence or misbehavior, they will meekly take their knees and bow down before those who demand that the statue be taken down. Throw away tradition, ignore the number of students of all races who came through UNC in the last 100 years or so without a whisper of protest about the statue. Insult the heritage and honor of all those who stood with and for the South, demean the honored memories of families who lost ancestors in the fight. There is going to come a day of reckoning with these protest groups, and it will be neither pleasant nor pretty. But it will come.

  • Janet Ghumri Aug 24, 7:58 p.m.
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    imho, this sounds like a thinly veiled battle cry for someone to 'cause' the statue to become a 'physical threat' to public safety (ie. vandalism). If the statue is in any way impacted and deemed 'unsafe', what are the provisions to have it repaired instead of whisked away to thundering leftist applause? It is a statue, it can be repaired if broken. it doesn't have to be permanently removed. Seems like an excuse for more violent 'counter protests with no one on site for the original 'protests'. smh

  • Cameron Horn Aug 24, 7:50 p.m.
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    Nancy Pelosi's dad once dedicated Confederate statues

  • Bo Whit Aug 24, 5:40 p.m.
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    Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday told UNC system officials they have the authority to take immediate action if they believe the statue is posing a risk to public safety’ Watson said, “I think conditions on the campus could be interpreted as a danger to public safety,

    In my opinion, this sounds like a transparent reason to remove the statue. An electrical outlet "could be" a danger to public safety if one sticks a screwdriver in it.

    I watched the Live Feed of the Silent Sam protest. Several students were interviewed/asked questions. One UNC freshman girl (she had been on campus for 1 day) said she wished we were like Germany because they didn't have statues. Huh??? Say what??? Evidently she confused information about Nazi Germany with CSA statues. My point: The majority of the Silent Sam protesters are young kids who don't a clue.

  • Robert Swiger Sr. Aug 24, 5:17 p.m.
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    My question is who organized the rally someone had to organize it who is the one person or group that organized the rally. Also the Professor cops out and says take it down. So the liberal comes out in him. WRAL how about getting an opion from Conservative Professor.

  • Bob Posvic Aug 24, 3:52 p.m.
    user avatar

    Exactly who were the "white supremacists, neo-Nazis and alt-right organizations" present in Durham during the latest statue kerfuffle there?? The only savants present were left wing ones...

  • Anita Lambert Hawley Aug 24, 1:51 p.m.
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    I do believe it's the extreme left doing most of the protesting. Another unbiased story brought to you by WRAL. SMFH!