News: CJ Exclusives

What to do about Silent Sam?

Faculty and TAs call off threatened strike — for now — but tensions could resume if BOG task force restores statue to its original site

Onlookers view the base of "Silent Sam" Tuesday, Aug. 20, the day after protesters removed the Confederate monument from its post at UNC-Chapel Hill. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
Onlookers view the base of "Silent Sam" Tuesday, Aug. 20, the day after protesters removed the Confederate monument from its post at UNC-Chapel Hill. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

The saga of Silent Sam will continue into 2019. 

Last year ended with a modest truce. A group of faculty and teaching assistants pulled back a threat to withhold student grades if the Confederate monument were returned to its original site on McCorkle Place on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. But the UNC System’s Board of Governors punted into spring any decision on the statue’s fate.

So tensions may revive in a few weeks.

On Dec. 14, the Board of Governors rejected a proposal from the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to rehouse the Confederate statue in a $5.3 million historical center. Instead, the board, with the exception of member Thom Goolsby who wanted Silent Sam returned to his pedestal, voted to create a five-member task force to assist the Chapel Hill BOT in crafting a new plan.

“At the end of the day, I think the $5.3 million was very tough for a lot of us to swallow,” BOG Chairman Harry Smith said during a news conference after the board passed the resolution. “The goal here is to simply get this right.” 

Board of Governors members Darrell Allison, Jim Holmes, Wendy Murphy, Anna Nelson, and Bob Rucho were chosen for the task force. A new deadline was set for no later than March 15 to devise a new plan for Silent Sam. 

“We appreciate the opportunity to have more time to develop the best plan to relocate the monument,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement after the decision.

After protestors toppled Silent Sam in August, the university has struggled to find a home for the statue that complies with state law, ensures public safety, and satisfies students, faculty, and the local community. 

The General Assembly passed a law in 2015 prohibiting permanent removal of historic monuments unless express permission is granted from the N.C. Historical Commission. The law limits the cases in which historical monuments can be relocated. If the “object of remembrance” is moved it must be transferred to a place of “similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was located.” 

The law prohibits the monument from going to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless that was where the monument originally stood.

On Dec. 3, Folt unveiled a proposal for Silent Sam she said was within the boundaries of the law.

Under the proposal, Silent Sam would be moved to a new historical center at Odum Village, where the statue and other historic artifacts would be available for public viewing or other educational purposes. The center would also feature a state-of-the-art security system.

Not only would the center require $5.3 to be built, but it also would require $800,000 in annual operating costs.

Another part of the proposal would see a systemwide mobile police force created to respond to future protests.

Few people voiced support for the Silent Sam proposal. Whether it was concern over the hefty price tag or the prospect of Silent Sam returning to campus, opposition to the proposal was widespread.

Several dozen demonstrators gathered outside the UNC Center for School Leadership Dec. 14 to protest the Silent Sam proposal. In addition to the protestors was the prospect of a grade strike. At least 79 UNC-Chapel Hill teacher assistants and instructors threatened to withhold final grades if Silent Sam were to return to campus.

UNC BOG member Marty Kotis said the proposed strike crossed a line.

“When people start saying you have to believe something or we’re not going to release your grades unless this is done, they’re putting their personal agendas ahead of the students,” Kotis told Carolina Journal.

Kotis has called for swift action against potential strikers, including their dismissal if they indeed withhold grades. 

The TAs and instructors never carried through with their threat as the UNC BOG voted not to approve the BOT recommendation for a historical center.

“For the StrikeDownSam Anti-RacistCoalition, this new timeline necessitates a new strategy; we recently released all grades for the fall 2018 semester, but [we] will be in a strong position to continue our action in spring 2019 if the BOG, BOT, or members of the University administration decide to place UNC students at risk,” the coalition wrote in a news release.

While the group approved the Board of Governors’ rejection of the Silent Sam proposal, they criticized the board’s passing of a resolution to “prescribe minimum sanctions including suspension, termination, and expulsion for individuals who engage in unlawful activity that impacts public safety.” These unlawful activities range from inciting a riot to resisting arrest.

“The Confederate monument must never return to campus in any shape or form nor a center to its history be erected,” the coalition wrote. “We further express here our right to freely assemble and to practice our freedom of speech on a matter of great public concern.”