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A year without “Silent Sam” at UNC

Silent Sam in its former site at McCorkle Place at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Today marks one year since the toppling of the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The monument, erected in 1913 as part of a what historians call a new wave of white supremacist sentiment, was torn down by protesters after decades of controversy and attempts to legally secure its removal. Its damaged remains are now kept by the school in an undisclosed location as its return to campus becomes increasingly unlikely.

Conflicts over the toppling of the statue and how to respond played into deep tensions with the UNC Board of Governors that led to the resignations of both former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt.

The men who replaced them — Dr. Bill Roper as interim UNC System President and Kevin Gusciewicz as interim chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill — have both gone on record saying the statue should not return to the campus.

With UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith reversing position to oppose the statue’s return, there is no longer even a timeline for any decision on the monument’s future.

A year on, the toppling of “Silent Sam” seems to have had a profound impact not only on the campus and its politics but on the continuing struggle over Confederate statues. Earlier this year the city of Winston-Salem removed a similar statue despite objections by the Daughters of the Confederacy. On Monday night the Chatham County Board of Commissioners voted to remove another Confederate monument in Pittsboro.

As students prepare to celebrate a year without the statue on campus tonight, it’s worth looking back at the important events leading up to and following in the wake of “Silent Sam’s” removal.

A “Silent Sam” Timeline

July 22, 2015: Former Gov. Pat McCrory signs a law making it more difficult to remove “objects of remembrance” as sentiment grows against Confederate monuments. Statues such as “Silent Sam” are voluntarily removed across the South. Others are vandalized and torn down by protesters.

August 22, 2017: Spellings emails the UNC Board of Governors a letter sent to Gov. Roy Cooper outlining concerns the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue could pose a threat to students and could, in the charged environment, be in danger of being damaged or destroyed. The letter urged Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to “take up this matter and to consider what steps should be taken, consistent with the law.” The letter was signed by Spellings, Folt, then Chairman Louis Bissette and UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochrane. It touched off a political firestorm and a letter signed by 15 board members criticizing Spellings for going to Cooper, a Democrat, as weakness and hand-wringing. Ultimately, the board rejects Cooper’s suggestion that danger to the campus and statue justifies its removal, despite a 2015 law passed to prevent the removal of such monuments.

May 24, 2018: Harry Smith is elected chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. Smith is one of the board members who signed the letter critical of Spellings and part of a more combative and conservative wing of the board that has had a number of public conflicts with her and Folt.

August 21, 2018: Protesters topple the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument. Board of Governors members criticize Folt and Spellings’ handling of the protests leading up to its toppling and the response to the event.

October 26, 2018: UNC System President Margaret Spellings resigns after a tenure marked with the tensions with the UNC Board of Governors. She does not deny there have been tensions but insists it is simply time for her to move on.

November 1, 2018: UNC Board of Governors announces Dr. William Roper, CEO of UNC Healthcare, as interim President of the UNC System.

December 3, 2018: UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees suggests housing the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue in a new, $5.3 million UNC history center that would also feature other items from UNC’s history and include classroom space. The center would be at the edge of the developed campus with far more security than its original site at McCorkle Place.

December 14, 2018: The Board of Governors rejects the history center plan and appoints a task force of board members to work with Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees on a new plan for the statue by mid-March.

January 14, 2019: UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt announces her resignation. In the announcement, which took the UNC Board of Governors by surprise, she also announced that she had ordered the base of the toppled Confederate statue removed from McCorkle Place. Members of the Board of Governors – including Chairman Harry Smith – condemn the order and criticize Folt not speaking with the board about stepping down.

January 15, 2019: The UNC Board of Governors accepts Folt’s resignation, but announces they will not allow her to serve until the end of the semester as she intended. Instead, they announce her last day will be January 31. The board authorizes interim UNC System President William Roper to appoint an interim chancellor as soon as he sees fit.

February 1, 2019: Roper and Interim UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Gusciewicz both go on record opposing the return of “Silent Sam” to campus.

May 22, 2019: Smith goes on record as saying that returning “Silent Sam” to campus is “not the right path.” Though the board had set multiple deadlines to announce a plan for the statue’s future, Smith said there it no longer makes sense to set arbitrary timelines on the issue.

 

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