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Graffiti painted on Confederate statue in Durham, blasted off UNC’s ‘Silent Sam’

A CCI Environmental Services worker holds the ladder for another worker as he blasts graffiti from the sandstone base of “Silent Sam” on the UNC Chapel Hill campus Tuesday. The spray of pulverized glass and water was expected to remove the black acrylic spray paint without harming the statue.
A CCI Environmental Services worker holds the ladder for another worker as he blasts graffiti from the sandstone base of “Silent Sam” on the UNC Chapel Hill campus Tuesday. The spray of pulverized glass and water was expected to remove the black acrylic spray paint without harming the statue. hlynch@newsobserver.com

As UNC began removing “Black Lives Matter” graffiti from a Confederate monument, workers found the same message scrawled on a Confederate memorial in front of a Durham County administration building Tuesday morning.

A police officer spotted the vandalism about 3:30 a.m. and alerted the Durham County Sheriff’s Office because the building, which is an old courthouse, is county property, said spokesman Brian Jones.

The Sheriff’s Office was gathering video surveillance footage from the area to determine who was responsible, Jones said.

The granite base on Main Street is topped by the figure of a soldier holding a muzzle-loading rifle and carrying a bedroll and a canteen. “In memory of ‘the boys who wore the gray’” is inscribed on the statue, which was dedicated in 1924.

One of the engraved flags on the statue is the Confederate battle flag that has prompted a national debate since nine people were shot to death June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Federal officials have charged Dylann Roof, 21, of Columbia, S.C., with murder and are investigating whether to charge him with a hate crime. After the shooting, photos of Roof holding the Confederate flag emerged.

The Tuesday morning discovery in Durham is the third such incident since July 1 in the Triangle, when cemetery workers found “Black Lives Matter” and “Tear It Down” painted on a Confederate memorial in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery.

Over the weekend, vandals struck UNC’s “Silent Sam” memorial to 321 alumni who died in the Civil War and all students who joined the Confederate Army.

“It’s appalling,” said Ronnie Roach, chief of staff for the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “These are monuments to, I guess to put it bluntly, dead people. People that we have as ancestors, and it’s our family.”

William G. O’Quinn, a Durham-based member of the organization, said he considers the vandalism a “hate crime.”

The monuments were intended to honor those who fought in a war in which slavery was among a handful of issues, including states’ rights and economics, he said.

“I had a lot of ancestors that fought for the Confederacy,” said O’Quinn, 52. “I only know of one that owned slaves.”

Nia Wilson, a community organizer in Durham, said she doesn’t consider such an act vandalism but civil disobedience.

“I support people’s right to participate in civil disobedience,” she said.

Whether slavery was all or part of the reason people fought for the Confederacy, they still supported the continuation of the institution, she said.

“No one would ask a German soldier that was fighting for Nazis whether they supported a portion of the Holocaust or 100 percent,” she said. “Or whether it was about economics and the rights of Germans.”

There are about 120 Civil War memorials across the state, according to the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, said Keith Hardison, director of the agency within the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

About a dozen are dedicated to Union soldiers, and others honor soldiers in a number of wars. About 100 are clearly monuments related to the Confederacy. The monuments are in cemeteries and on public and private properties.

State officials are taking additional security measures to protect them, he said.

The recent acts of vandalism are “very sad,” Hardison said.

“Monuments represent our past, and the past is not always perfect,” he said. “History is not always perfect, but defacing something or a call to remove something is not the way to go about it.”

Wilson said that history should remain visible, but you can’t have a Confederate monument “and not say what the Confederacy stood for.”

Durham County officials are reviewing security procedures and will report their findings to the county manager, said Deborah Craig-Ray, assistant county manager.

Beverly Thompson, a spokeswoman for the city of Durham, said cemetery staff members are making sure that gates are locked by the posted time.

“And maybe an extra patrol or two at no particular times,” she said.

While Durham County officials were able to remove the graffiti within two hours, the process at UNC was more complicated.

Mike Coleman, general manager for Salisbury-based Contaminant Control Inc., which was hired to clean Silent Sam, started the process around 1 p.m. Tuesday and expected the job to be finished by 5:30 p.m. His crew of four blasted Silent Sam, installed in 1913, with recycled crushed glass that gently removed the paint without damaging the statue.

“That sandstone is very delicate,” he said, “and you have to take your time.”

They then applied a special sealer that will make it easier to remove any future graffiti, he said.

UNC spokesman Michael John said the university has no plans for special policing around the statue, which sits in an open quad.

“We’ll continue to be vigilant,” John said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917;

Twitter: @virginiabridges

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