Silent Sam, UNC-Chapel Hill’s monument to students who fought and died for the Confederacy, and the object of many quarrels, was toppled Monday night in a historic protest that caps decades of controversy and vandalism — leaving many to question the future of similar memorials around the state.
The statue, torn down Aug. 20 by a crowd of 250, has been the object of harsh criticism and staunch support over time since its construction in 1913. Dubbed “Silent Sam” in 1954, the monument first was known as “The Soldiers Monument” and the “Confederate Memorial.”
Given the voracious push to “Silence Sam,” the university should have seen this coming, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. But given state law and sticky political turf, “Everybody was pointing fingers at everybody else in terms of who should make decisions about the monument’s future.”
Over the past year, UNC’s flagship university spent $390,000 to secure the area around Silent Sam, reported the Raleigh News and Observer after receiving financial statements from UNC officials.
Sam dominated higher education headlines in recent years, but he is no stranger to dispute — and is just one figure in a larger group.
North Carolina has “more monuments honoring the Civil War than any other historical events, with five Civil War monuments for every World War I monument,” states a 2016 report from the UNC law school.
Most of these monuments were built between 1890 and 1930. Many are on public property. In courthouses. In town squares. In graveyards.
On university campuses.
Opinions about the fate of such statues is largely split, and it’s up to the North Carolina Historical Commission to recommend what to do with them. While the 11-member body prepares to do so at an Aug. 22 meeting, look back at Silent Sam — at where he’s been, how he’s impacted UNC, and why he’s been pulled illegally from his pedestal.
Portions of this outline courtesy of materials from the University of North Carolina.
Silent Sam: A Timeline
June 2, 1913
Monument is dedicated on commencement day. Confederate veteran Julian Carr praises the Confederate army’s “saving the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” recalling horse-whipping a “negro wench” for insulting a white woman on Franklin Street.
“Julian Carr was always a kind of Sarah Palin maverick figure within this hegemony.” — Gary Freeze, historian, professor of history and American cultural studies at Catawba College
May 23, 1940
Students against the United States’ involvement in World War II hold a peace rally and plant white crosses — which later are set ablaze — around Silent Sam.
May 3, 1942
A Daily Tar Heel report says the statue may be scrapped for the war effort, but no such action is taken.
Feb. 12, 1954
The Daily Tar Heel dubs the monument “Silent Sam” for the first time.
“In my day as an undergraduate, there was little or no attention to monuments. So far as I know they, and certainly not Silent Sam, were not associated with race or racism. Segregation was, of course, topical; and many of us were active in advocating and dismantling of Jim Crow laws and forms of discrimination and prejudice that animated them.”
— Edwin Yoder, journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, UNC Chapel Hill graduate, class of 1956
September 24, 1954
Silent Sam’s base is defaced with black paint, and a beer bottle is attached to his rifle the night before a football game. Campus workers say they clean paint from the monument “after every darn home game,” the Daily Tar Heel reports.
A letter to the editors of The Daily Tar Heel pushes discussion about the monument’s symbolism — and whether it should be removed.
April 8, 1968
Silent Sam is vandalized after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Later, students clean the statue and decorate it with Confederate flags, which later are removed at the request of the university.
“Ever since I came to UNC in 1969 there has been grumbling in some circles about the statue, but it didn’t amount to protest and the racial emphasis is relatively new. What I used to hear was more complaint along the lines of “still fighting the Civil War.” — John Shelton Reed, sociologist, author, emeritus professor at UNC-Chapel Hill
Nov. 19, 1971
The Black Student Movement and Afro-American Society of Chapel Hill High School gather to protest Silent Sam in memory of James Cates, a black man murdered by members of a white motorcycle gang on Nov. 20, 1970, and William Murphy, a black man shot and killed by a highway patrolman Aug. 6, 1971.
Silent Sam is vandalized during the NCAA men’s basketball finals.
The statue is temporarily removed from the monument and shipped to Cincinnati for professional cleaning and restoration, which costs $8,600. Bronze specialists Eleftherios and Mercene Karkadoulias repaired cracks, removed green oxidation, and gave the statue a protective wax coating. The statue is put back in place six months later.
May 1, 1992
Students from the Black Student Movement march on Silent Sam. Chancellor Paul Hardin speaks to the group.
A letter to The Daily Tar Heel by Dr. Gerald Horne comparing Silent Sam to statues of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Iraq prompts discussion of the meaning of Silent Sam and whether it should be removed from campus.
Aug. 7, 2011
The Real Silent Sam, a community organization to “create honest public dialogue and provoke critical thought surrounding the monuments and buildings in Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” is founded.
Real Silent Sam Movement unveils a mock plaque on the side of the monument explaining its racist history.
Jan. 22, 2013
In recognition of Silent Sam’s centennial and the launch of Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina, Wilson Library hosts a lecture by history professor Fitz Brundage and doctoral student Adam Domby about the monument’s history. Records and photos related to the history of Silent Sam are displayed
Feb. 9, 2015
The Dialectic and Philanthropic Joint Senate debates removal of Silent Sam, deciding against it.
July 5, 2015
In the wake of racial protests near St. Louis, Missouri, the base of the statue is spray painted with the words “black lives matter,” “KKK,” and “murderer.”
July 23, 2015
Gov. Pat McCrory signs a bill prohibiting towns, universities, and public agencies from moving or removing “objects of remembrance” related to “an event, person or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history” without a recommendation from the N.C. Historical Commission and permission of the General Assembly. The century-old commission “is charged with setting policy for the state’s identification, collection, management, preservation, interpretation and programming related to manuscripts and other records, historical and archaeological artifacts, and historic sites and properties held by most institutions located within the department.” The law rouses protests from Democrats who believe localities should have control over the fate of Confederate monuments.
“One of the great hallmarks of North Carolina since 1900 has been the use of commissions with members from all the different sections of the state to forge a consensus for civic acts and responsibilities. To allow localities to take whatever path they want is to negate the true spirit of our civic checks and balances.” — Freeze
Oct. 12, 2015
On University Day, students and activists hold a rally at the statue, then march to Memorial Hall where they interrupt a speech by Chancellor Carol Folt, chanting “tear it down, or we shut you down.”
Oct. 25, 2015
A group called “Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County” rallies on campus in support of Silent Sam. Protesters carry Confederate flags. Counter-protests ensue.
Nov. 19, 2015
A coalition of student activist groups presents a list of demands to UNC Chapel Hill administrators, the UNC system, and the N.C. General Assembly. One of the demands requires “the removal of the racist Confederate monument Silent Sam and ALL confederate monuments on campuses in the UNC System.”
August 2017 – August 2018
Violent demonstrations by white supremacists in Charlottesville bring renewed attention to Confederate monuments in North Carolina. Durham protesters tear down a monument in front of the county courthouse. Concern over Silent Sam heightens. UNC Students and community members hold a rally demanding removal. Students begin a sit-in at the statue. In following months, activists continue protests.
“Maybe it is time that we recognized that to many of our citizens, rightly or wrongly, the symbols of the Confederacy don’t stand for freedom and self-determination, or for a heritage of sacrifice and honor and duty, or even for hell-raising, good-timing, don’t-tread-on-me rebelry, but for white supremacy, plain and simple. Given that, they’re entitled to their objections. Maybe we ought to get government out of the act and let those who value the Confederate heritage celebrate it privately. But Silent Sam is a different matter. Like the Vietnam Memorial, he doesn’t honor a cause; rather, he honors some brave men who died in one.” — Reed
May 30, 2018
Democratic legislators introduce a bill that would move Confederate monuments to an indoor location for the purpose of educating the public about the “bitter racial struggle that continues to burden our country.”
Aug. 20, 2018
A crowd of 250 gathers at Peace and Justice Plaza outside the post office on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The rally, “Until They All Fall,” supports Maya Little, a graduate student facing honor court charges for an April protest in which she poured red paint and her own blood on Silent Sam. Around 9:20 p.m., the statue is topped from its base.
“We are a nation of laws — and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.” — UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith.
“The governor understands that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.” — Gov. Roy Cooper’s office
Aug. 21, 2018
Members of the General Assembly release varying statements on Silent Sam’s destruction. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, condemn the defacement of public property in separate news releases.
Others focus their ire on the state’s reticence to deal with Sam more quickly.
“It is past time for Silent Sam to be moved from a place of honor on the campus of the University of the People. It is unfortunate state legislators chose not to hear and pass the bill we filed earlier this year to move the monument to an indoor site where it would stand as a reminder of the bitter racial struggle that continues to burden our country.”
— Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham, Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, Rep. Greg Meyer, D-Durham