Silent Sam, the Confederate statue torn down by protesters four months ago, could return to UNC-Chapel Hill, indoors at a new, $5 million university history center at the periphery of campus.
The recommendation for the controversial monument was approved Monday by the UNC Board of Trustees, with two members, including the student body president, voting against it. The proposal will next go to the UNC system’s Board of Governors for consideration at its Dec. 14 meeting.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and several trustees expressed their preference for the statue to be relocated off campus, but said that would not comply with current state law governing the preservation of historic monuments.
Trustee Lowry Caudill said the decision was one of the most complicated and difficult the board has ever had to make.
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“The preference would be to take the artifacts off campus,” he said, adding, “but we have a law, and the law prevents that, and we are obligated to follow the law.”
The cost for the new building, which would have state-of-the-art security, is $5.3 million, plus $800,000 in annual operating costs. It would be at the Odum Village area of campus, which is the former site of married student housing. Odum Village is currently being demolished to create an area for future campus growth.
The plan calls for completing the university history center in 2022. The university plans to seek funding from the legislature to build it, Folt said.
Reaction was swift, with critics calling the proposed new building a shrine. Students and others blasted the plan on social media, and a coalition of eight student and community groups issued a statement, calling it “a racist and cowardly decision.”
“Students and community members have risked their physical safety and personal freedom to stand up to the statue’s white supremacist supporters,” said the statement from the groups, including the Black Student Movement, UNC Black Congress, Defend UNC and UNC Workers Union. “We have been assaulted, stalked, threatened, and harassed.”
On Monday evening, hundreds of protesters blocked traffic on Franklin Street and chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” Earlier during the protest, graduate student Maya Little called for a strike among teaching assistants at UNC. Little poured blood and ink on Silent Sam last spring.
Alyssa Bowen, a UNC graduate student in history, tweeted, “@UNC will be the only institution to ERECT A CONFEDERATE MONUMENT IN 2019,” adding, “It’s official y’all — a shrine to #silentsam at NC’s flagship school. White supremacy is alive and thriving.”
Adam Domby, a Ph.D. graduate from UNC and history professor at College of Charleston, referenced the recent firing of UNC football coach Larry Fedora in tweeting: “Maybe @CoachFedora can donate some of his 12 million buyout to not work to pay for @UNC’s new 5 million dollar center/museum/shrine/secure storage site for Silent Sam? He would still have 7 million dollars left to not work for.”
The recommendation followed an hour-long closed session by the Board of Trustees on Monday morning at the Carolina Inn, with police presence. The university evaluated 20 potential sites, and public safety was the most important criterion, Folt said.
“We do want to get this right, and we believe we have,” Folt said at the beginning of the meeting.
Folt said she hoped to continue discussions around the possibility of an off-campus home for Silent Sam, but will go ahead with the history and education center as well as further contextualization of UNC history in other campus locations. Even if legislative funding does not come through, she said, “This is so important to us that we are going to make it happen.”
She said the plan offered safety plus education. “We’re a university,” she said. “We teach truth, and that’s history in all of its fullness.”
Student Body President Savannah Putnam said she could not support the recommendation because Silent Sam should not have a place on campus and does not serve students. “I simply can’t support putting a Confederate monument back on campus,” she said.
The recommendation passed, with two members, Putnam and Allie Ray McCullen, voting no.
The university’s legal counsel, Mark Merritt, said there are still safety and liability concerns related to displaying the statue again on university property because there is always a threat of violence with large scale protests.
A hired security consultant said the university faces “a high risk of violence, civil disorder, and property damage if the Monument is restored to its original position.” Having the statue in any open area would mean it would be under siege, according to the UNC report, leading the consultant to suggest a new building engineered with special security features in and around it.
The recommendation runs counter to the wishes of faculty and student groups. Faculty leaders and a group of African American professors had said the statue should not be located anywhere on the university campus. In October, the university’s Faculty Council passed a resolution calling for the permanent removal of the statue, echoing a letter signed by black faculty.
“Returning the statue to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus would reaffirm the values of white supremacy that motivated its original installation,” the faculty resolution said. “Moreover, to do so would undermine the physical security of all members of our community.”
Many on campus have suggested the best place for the statue is a historic battlefield or the state history museum in Raleigh. A Nov. 30 letter to a UNC official from N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Susi Hamilton said the museum could accommodate the statue if the N.C. Historical Commission approved. The costs could exceed $2 million to move the statue, make structural changes to the museum, design an exhibit and add to operational staff.
Folt and other administrators met with a group of faculty leaders Monday afternoon to review the plan and answer questions. Some faculty said they were concerned that the debate over Silent Sam would never end if the statue is housed on campus.
Cary Levine, an art professor, said if the critical and accurate history of the statue is told in a new center, controversy will be reopened.
“How are we going to negotiate that? We’re going to be back at square one,” he said. “Do you think the people that marched on campus with Confederate flags are going to be happy with the full contextualization that we’re planning? It just seems like we’re just going to have another battle when it comes to how we’re presenting this object.”
Merritt, the university legal counsel, said Silent Sam is a living reminder of a part of history that “we need to be careful not to forget.” He said his own travel to concentration camps in Germany was deeply affecting.
“They’re impactful pieces of our history, although they’re ugly and they’re offensive,” Merritt said. “I might argue they’re also necessary and productive if we can do it in the right way with the right contextualization. But let’s face it. This is hard. This is a hard issue.”
Jay Smith, a history professor, said he was disappointed that the UNC report did not adequately communicate the consensus of the campus community on Silent Sam. “If we have to take this statue back, we’re doing it under duress,” he said. “We do not want it, we want nothing to do with it, we’re embarrassed by our association with it.”
The board’s vote Monday was on the day of the deadline to send a final recommendation to the Board of Governors. At least one member of the system governing board has spoken out to say the statue should be put back up on its pedestal on McCorkle Place, at a major entrance to campus.
Folt said months ago that the statue should not be “at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university.”
Complicating the picture is a 2015 state law that generally bars the removal of historic objects of remembrance on state property. The law limits the options for relocating a monument, though it does allow removal to preserve an object or to make way for construction. The law does not address a case of a monument having been forcibly moved, as in the case of the Aug. 20 protest that brought down Silent Sam.
If a monument is removed, the law states that it “shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability” within the same jurisdiction. If it is not already in a cemetery or museum, then it can’t be moved to a cemetery or museum, Merritt said.
The Board of Governors and the N.C. Historical Commission would have to approve the UNC proposal before it moves forward.