Hundreds of students and community members gathered Tuesday night to celebrate the first anniversary of the toppling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
Anti-racist activists led the large assembled crowd from Peace and Justice Plaza to McCorkle Place, where they stopped at the former site of the Confederate monument, took a moment of silence at the Unsung Founders memorial honoring the Black labor — slave and free — that helped build the university and called for the removal of the names of slave holders and white supremacists from university buildings at the Old Well.
“We celebrate not only the toppling of a symbol but the toppling of white supremacy,” Raul Arce Jimenez told the crowd at the now barren site that was once the home of “Silent Sam.”
Jimenez is still facing charges in the toppling of the statue.
“What used to be here doesn’t need to be here,” Jimenez said to applause. “So today we celebrate, as we did last year when it came down, the absence of a symbol of white supremacy. This symbol stood for more than a hundred years, glaring down on black and brown students as they walked by. It stood here to welcome students and visitors. But I ask, ‘Who felt welcome as they walked by this statue? Who felt accepted as they walked by the grotesque reminder that people fought so people could not be free?’ It was a symbol of white supremacy and who tore it down?”
The crowd replied with shouts of “We did!”
Moving to the Unsung Founders memorial, the crowd gathered around 2018 graduate Michelle Brown.
“This institution would not physically exist without Black and brown people,” Brown reminded the crowd before they laid flowers atop the memorial and observed a moment of silence.
Brown welcomed UNC students — especially first year students.
“I admire you, I really do,” Brown said. “To come to this university after everything that’s happened the past two years…I hope it’s because you know you can follow in the steps of anti-racist activists who came well before me and well before most of the people in front of you, who will continue to fight for this university. I hope you’re here because you want to join us.”
Paloma Baca is one of those incoming freshman, experiencing her first day of classes Tuesday on the anniversary of Silent Sam’s toppling. She said she felt inspired by Tuesday’s gathering.
“I’m glad that what was once seen as super radical is now being accepted,” Baca said. “I think a lot of people try to shy away from really hard discussions about thing like reparations, tearing down statues or remaking monuments because it really disrupts the ideas they have.”
“It’s really amazing to see the community come together,” Baca said. “It really makes you want to get involved.”
Baca said she worries that everything has become so polarized, pointing to a small group of young white men with Donald Trump campaign flags and #MAGA signs who attempted to disrupt the gathering from its edges several times throughout the evening.
But beyond that small group and a few cars laying on their horns as they passed in an apparent attempt to drown out speakers, the celebration was largely without incident.
Tensions between demonstrators and police were apparent but did not spill over into violence or arrests. As police from several agencies followed the demonstration on foot, bicycle and horseback they were greeted with occasional chants from the crowd, including “How do you spell Nazi? C-O-P!” and “Get those animals off those horses!”
At the Old Well demonstrators held up signs bearing the names of 28 buildings and university landmarks named for historical figures who were either slave owners or avowed white supremacists, demanding that the university rename the buildings.
Danielle Dulken, a PhD student at UNC, gave a short history of the a number of the figures for which the buildings were named and the struggle of students to have them renamed.
She told the crowd about the successful push to rename Saunders Hall, named for UNC trustee and Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders. Rejecting calls to rename the hall for black author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, the university instead rechristened it “Carolina Hall” in 2015. The university trustees then imposed a 16 year moratorium on renaming buildings.
Many students on campus still insist on calling the building Hurston Hall.
The moratorium, which still stands, has put UNC-Chapel Hill behind a number of other universities in addressing its racial history, Dulken said. It means that while East Carolina University and UNC-Greensboro have removed North Carolina governor Charles B. Aycock’s name from buildings on their campus in view of his leadership of a turn-of-the-century white supremacy movement, UNC-Chapel Hill has not.
Students should reject the myth that the white supremacists honored at UNC were simply products of their time, Dulken said, or that every prominent person involved with the university at that time held those views.
“Many of their peers did not own slaves or write publicly for white supremacy,” Dulken said. “Judge William Gaston, a UNC trustee, argued against slavery in 1832. In the 1850s Professor Benjamin Hendrick shared his abolitionist views with students.”
But the names of those who fought slavery and white supremacy aren’t given the same place of honor at UNC, Dulken said.
“The building names, like Silent Sam, have a purpose on our campus,” Dulken said. “They seek to enact, enforce and honor white supremacy.”
“It isn’t hard to see how the white supremacist honorifics across campus support and undergird the Board of Governors’ legislative policies,” Dulken said. “And it isn’t hard to see how their foot soldiers, the UNC administration and and their police force serve and uphold it.”
The names are both a symptom and a cause of racism on campus, in the state and the nation, Dulken said.
“But we tore down Sam,” Dulken said. “We renamed Hurston Hall and we will do it again and again and again and again until they all fall!”
Student activist Lindsay Ayling recalled the night the Silent Sam statue was torn down and the sense of relief she said she felt.
“Generations of students organized to take down this monument to racism and generations were told that the forces preserving it were simply too powerful,” Ayling said. “‘You will never remove Silent Sam’ they said, ‘Because the Board of Governors refuses to petition the Historical Commission. ‘You’ll never remove Silent Sam because there’s a state law that simply forbids it.’ And you know we’d never break state law.”
Former UNC Chancellor Carol Folt told them to get anything done on the issue they would have to change the entire makeup of the North Carolina General Assembly, Ayling said – which, Ayling said, is too gerrymandered to make that a realistic goal.
“Guess what?” Ayling said. “We did remove Silent Sam.”
The strength of all the opposing forces paled in comparison to the power of the community united and committed to change, Ayling said.
“All it took to bring Silent Sam down was ten seconds and a rope,” Ayling said to cheers.
— JoekillianPW (@JoekillianPW) August 21, 2019
Around 9 p.m. students marched through campus chanting and gathered in the intersection of South Columbia and East Franklin Streets, stopping traffic. Using police cruisers and trucks, police blocked off the streets and redirected traffic to allow students to gather in a circle and chant a quote from Assata Shakur.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” they chanted. “It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
As the large crowd dispersed, a number of them came together to dance in the street and burn a Confederate flag.