Less than a month into this term’s classes at the University of North Carolina, Angum Check, a 19-year-old philosophy and African-American studies student, is weary. It’s not classes and studying that’s got her down, rather she’s beleaguered from a long fight to bring down Silent Sam, a campus monument to Confederate soldiers.
“It’s very draining,” Check told me during a recent conversation, noting the presence of the campus statute has irreparably marred her college experience. “Ever since I arrived here, I’ve been a part of movements and have worked as an individual in the struggle to take down Silent Sam.”
Now, as she settles into her third year of classes on the Chapel Hill campus, her struggle continues with fresh rounds of protests and community debates over Silent Sam. But this semester, unlike previous school terms, student activism surrounding the statute is at a fever pitch, escalating beyond Check and a relatively small clique of frequently ignored student activists.
In the wake of last month’s violent protest over Confederate symbols in Charlottesville, Virginia, which sparked international debate over the history and meaning of memorializing defeated Civil War veterans, Check and other campus protestors have higher hopes of achieving their goal.
“Right now, we’re building off the efforts of the past,” she said, adding her fellow activists are considering boycotting town merchants and the student stores to ratchet up pressure on the school to remove the statute. “Now is a very, very vital moment because of the momentum that’s going around the country. Yes, I’m very optimistic we may succeed.”
Heavily inspired by national and international reactions to the Charlottesville demonstrations, hundreds of student activists at UNC participated in a huge protest on August 22 that organizers said was timed to coincide with the start of the fall semester and to capitalize on public awareness of and revulsion at white extremists who have taken Confederate monuments as their rallying cause.
A day before the planned protest and fearing potential violence similar to what happened in Charlottesville, UNC administrators, including UNC System President Margaret Spellings and Chancellor Carol Folt wrote to Gov. Roy Cooper asking for added security. They also inquired whether it would be possible for them to remove the statue, despite a 2015 law that prevents Confederate monuments from being altered or removed from state property.
North Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature established that law to protect Confederate imagery, following the Charleston church shooting earlier in the year. Nine people were shot and killed in the Charleston massacre, which occurred during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Episcopal Church. Gunman Dylan Roof, who had expressed support for white supremacy, was sentenced to death in the shootings and awaits execution at a federal prison in Indiana.
Cooper told campus administrators they could use a loophole in the law that allows for the removal of monuments if doing so was to provide public safety. But UNC officials questioned whether that provision would apply in the current situation and have since declined to remove Silent Sam.
The confusion over the governor’s opinion and the university’s decision to allow the monument to stay satisfied almost no one, angering nearly all sides.
Late last week, fifteen of the 32 voting members of the UNC system’s Board of Governors criticized its board chairman and the university’s administrators for their handling of the monument issue, taking umbrage at the letter to the governor asking for permission to remove the statute. “The letter exuded a weakness and hand wringing that does not accurately reflect the Board’s opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated,” the harshly critical letter stated. The board, which is largely composed of Republican members, appears starkly divided over the political and racial implications of removing the statue from the state’s flagship university.
A joint statement released by a coalition of student government leaders and campus organizations demanded the university administrators and state elected officials remove the statue. “We encourage you to remove the monument so that it can be preserved and contextualized for future North Carolinians in a museum or library collection while making it clear that we do not glorify our violent past,” the student groups’ statement said.
The university’s Faculty Council joined with groups of student leaders last week to demand that Silent Sam be taken down from its prominent spot on the campus grounds and, possibly, be relocated to a museum or library. Specifically, the council agreed on a near-unanimous vote to urge Spellings, Folt, Cooper, the state legislature and others who would have a say in the matter “to work together to make this move possible.”
Tyler Fleming, editor of The Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper, said in an interview that “contrary to the popular narrative on campus, people have been upset about Silent Sam going on decades now.” He said the newspaper found stories in its archives dating back to the early 1960s, well before large numbers of black students were on campus, of protests against the monument.
“This year, the discussions may be a little more intense and heated,” he said, noting students are generally more activist as a result of Charlottesville and an overall awareness of politics since the 2016 presidential election. “I think it’s fair to say that the controversy over Silent Sam is something that most students are aware of and thinking about or have some opinion on.”
Silent Sam, one of many Confederate monuments commissioned across the South by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, stands in McCorkle Place at the northern entrance of the university. With a long rifle at the ready and facing north as if to keep a vigil over a return of Union troops, Silent Sam has long been sore thumb that stuck out to the most progressive-minded students on a campus noted for its liberal attitudes.
At its 1913 dedication, during commencement celebrations, Confederate Civil War veteran Julian Carr praised the statue as a reminder of the young men who left the university to fight as saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” In his remarks, retained by the university archives, Carr described how the statue would stand in the memory of men, like himself, who had fought for the Confederacy:
One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.
Check said learning this bit of campus history makes it all the more challenging for her to stomach the statue or to feel any kinship with those who want it to remain on the campus. She lamented that her constant battles to take it down has robbed her of the carefree joy that many of her less-involved classmates seem to enjoy.
“But I can’t be like an average student because I feel compelled to focus on this symbol of racism,” Check said. “That’s the most frustrating part and it’s why I tell people that I don’t have school spirit. I have to fight every day against the system.