'It marks our history:' UNC community remains divided on Silent Sam
Posted August 22, 2017 2:34 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 2:05 p.m. EDT
Chapel Hill, N.C. — As it prepares for a rally that is rumored to begin at 7 p.m., the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a statement Tuesday saying the university does not legally have authority to remove the "Silent Sam" Confederate statue from campus.
Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday told UNC system officials that they have the authority to take immediate action if they believe the statue is posing a risk to public safety.
"If the University and its leadership believe such a dangerous condition is on campus, then the law gives it the authority to address those concerns. State law enforcement and emergency officials remain available to help and support the University as it navigates this process," Cooper wrote.
On Tuesday, the university said that removal of the statue would only be permitted if a building inspector concludes that physical disrepair of the statue threatens public safety, which is not the case with Silent Sam.
"We continue to believe that removing the Confederate Monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus, but the university can act only in accordance with the laws of the state of North Carolina. As we continue to seek clear guidance and legal authority to act, we ask for your patience and cooperation to help us maintain as safe an environment as we possibly can," the university's statement read.
Crews began setting up barriers around the statue on Tuesday morning, ahead of the rumored rally.
UNC-Chapel Hill students and faculty have varied opinions on the statue, whether it should stay on campus and where it should go if it is removed.
UNC junior Joey Leblanc said he "absolutely believes that Silent Sam should stand."
"Whether or not these are good issues or poor, it marks our history," Leblanc said. "It marks our history. And it's something that I want my kids' generation to see and understand. History should not ever be erased. It should be remembered."
Leblanc said he agrees with people who say the statue is a reminder of oppression, but he said he doesn't feel it should be forgotten.
"We should stand stronger and taller because of it and remember what happened so that nothing like this happens again," he said. "I do not want the statue to move. It's been hre for over 100 years, and it makes history for the campus."
But many other students and Chapel Hill residents feel the statue marks the university glossing over the statue's symbol of oppression. And many have protested in favor of its removal for years.
"Tear it down, tear it down, or we'll shout you down," students from a group called The Real Silent Sam Coalition chanted, when they interrupted a speech by Chancellor Carol Folt on University Day 2015.
After their stand during the celebration, the students received applause from some faculty.
UNC sophomore Evan Rodgers said he is not alone in thinking the statue should not be standing on campus.
"For me and a lot of other students, we find the statue hurtful that it is there, even with giving any historical context,just that in 2017 we still have a monument there," Rodgers said.
The coalition says "the monument is falsely represented" as honoring students, was erected "at the height of North Carolina’s white supremacy movement to incite fear in the newly freed black population" and makes many students feel unwelcome on campus.
Silent Sam has been vandalized multiple times per year, including having "KKK" and "Murderer" spray-painted on its base.
UNC system officials said that, because Silent Sam is in a prominent location on the Chapel Hill campus – near residence halls, classrooms and the financial aid building – they worry that protests that would likely draw outside groups could injure a student or significantly disrupt university operations.
UNC system officials on Monday sent a letter to Cooper, expressing fear the statue could spark protests that could lead to injury or property damage.
“Chancellor [Carol] Folt has notified us that the law enforcement staff at UNC-Chapel Hill believe that it is only a matter of time before an attempt is made to pull down Silent Sam in much the same manner we saw in Durham,” the letter said. “Based on our interactions with state and local law enforcement, including the State Bureau of Investigation, an attempt may occur at any time.”
A crowd of protesters last week toppled a Confederate statue outside the former Durham County courthouse. Eight people face criminal charges in the case.
The letter to Cooper comes on the same day Folt issued a statement to students, warning them about the potential Tuesday evening rally at the Silent Sam monument.
In the statement, Folt said that, while university officials realize the event may garner interest on campus, students are encouraged not to attend for their own safety.
“We also know that many in our community have expressed concerns about their safety on and around the campus during such events. And we know that the outside groups who may attend such a rally may be more interested in promoting discord and violence to advance their own agendas than engaging in a constructive and peaceful protest,” Folt said in the statement.
In the letter to Cooper, system officials said they believe there is a “strong likelihood” the university will require substantial law enforcement and emergency services support because of ongoing safety and security threats surrounding the statue.
UNC-Chapel Hill is the only campus in the UNC system that has a Confederate monument on its property. Last week, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger requested that the university petition the North Carolina Historical Commission to immediately remove Silent Sam from campus “in the interest of public safety.”