MICHAEL-BRYANT HICKS: If 'Silent Sam' returns to his pedestal, this alum will move on

Posted August 24, 2018 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2018 4:04 p.m. EDT

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael-Bryant Hicks is a 1996 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate. He went on to graduate from Yale Law School and received a Fulbright Scholarship to Ecuador. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he practices corporate law. Since 2007, Hicks has served on the board of UNC Global, an alumni board that extends the university’s academic reach to people and institutions around the world.

As an alumnus, I cherish the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so much so that for a decade I’ve sat on one of its alumni boards, contributing my time and energy to advancing its mission. Last year, I donated $50,000 to the university in order to establish a study abroad scholarship for minority and low-income students. My intention has been to renew that gift several times over in the years ahead.

I believe the University is a magnificent institution with a unique legacy in American higher education. And yet, if the university re-installs the 1913 statue known as “Silent Sam,” I will discontinue my financial support and involvement in its alumni programs.

This is a clarifying moment in the university’s history. Strange as it might seem, the university finds itself with a decision that’s identical to the one the administration of 1913 contemplated: Whether to erect a statue honoring the Confederate cause. Not whether to take such a statue down as debated in places like Charlottesville and New Orleans, but—owing to the handiwork of the “vandals”—whether to put one up.

(Let’s agree here that by definition the Boston Tea Party was also carried out by “vandals.” Protesters who have brought down statues of Saddam Hussein and other dictators throughout history were technically vandals, as were the crowds who began the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The cause of the Confederacy is at least as morally repugnant as the evil regimes represented by those structures, yet no one focuses on the destruction of property when discussing their removal.)

Until Monday night, the university might have comforted itself with the unpleasantness of Silent Sam by observing that it’s been there for more than a century, a quaint artifact of a different time and different values. Soon, however, the university will declare its own contemporary values by deciding whether to erect a Confederate statue where now there isn’t one. In short, the university will decide whether to cosign Confederate veteran alumnus Julian Carr, who in dedicating Silent Sam in 1913 celebrated the monument as a reminder to students of the importance of the Confederate soldier to the “welfare of the Anglo Saxon race.”

This is a clarifying moment. All around us, righteous voices are declaring that they will no longer accommodate sexual harassment, discrimination based upon gender identity, nor the policing of the simple act of living by people of color. In the spirit of this moment, I choose not to accommodate an obelisk of white supremacy. It took this act by protesters to convince me that I should make that stand right now on this issue.

The toppling of Silent Sam set me to thinking about how as a student at UNC I always felt obligated to accommodate white supremacy as enshrined in the monuments and the names of campus buildings. I came to Carolina from a long lineage of poor black tobacco workers and cleaning ladies, the first to obtain a university degree. I was doing well just to be allowed to attend Carolina. I felt grateful, the kind of sentiment that perhaps all Carolina students should hold, yet the feeling some minority students carry when it is made clear to us that we are guests in someone else’s home, a home where the people who terrorized our ancestors are celebrated across the physical landscape.

Bless those vandals. I don’t condone vandalism, but I do celebrate their sense of ownership of Carolina. A sense of ownership I wager most black students at the university don’t share even today. (It appears most of the protesters were not black students.  My guess is black kids at Carolina know what can happen to them if they go around pulling statues down.)

The protestors’ actions have caused me to interrogate myself. Do I still feel like a guest in the house of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill? Even after my 26-year relationship with the university and large cash donations? At what point do I claim the prerogatives of ownership of Carolina, its traditions, and culture?  We know how the donor class typically relates to the university.  Donors have the expectation of being heard and heeded in everything from their opinions on curricula to big time athletic programs.  And, they certainly wouldn’t give money to institutions that disrespect them and their ancestors. I expect no less. If Carolina is my home, too, if it is the home of the black students who traverse its campus every day, then we should not be insulted in our own home.

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