Members of the UNC Community Have Tried to Remove Silent Sam for Over 50 Years

(References)

There have been many comments from those who applaud the removal of Silent Sam, but oppose the means by which it was removed. So this is an attempt to outline only SOME of the efforts activists at UNC have taken historically & today to oppose Silent Sam. The contemporary Silence Sam movement has been met by UNC’s administration with either silence or open hostility.

First some history from the UNC Archives– Between 1968 and the early 1990s, protests came in response to major local and national events in African American history. Direct action against Silent Sam began in 1968 in response to MLK’s assassination. The Black Student Movement (BSM) and the Afro-American Society of Chapel Hill High School protested in front of Silent Sam in August 1970 to commemorate of two individuals—James Cates, a black man murdered in UNC’s Pit by members of a white supremacist motorcycle gang and, William Murphy, a black man shot and killed by a highway patrolman in nearby Ayden, NC.[i] Two years later another protest in memory of Cates and led by the BSM started at Silent Sam. The L.A. race riots in 1992 spurred another mobilization. After a discussion at the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center, BSM President Michelle Thomas led students in a march to Silent Sam. In 1997, UNC Housekeepers, who were mostly African American women, marched on MLK day to oppose institutional racism at UNC.

 
(Silent Sam after MLK’s assassination, Courtesy of UNC Archive)

For additional information on the longer history of the movement in the 1990s and early 2000s, see this tweet thread by history student A.M. Stephens.)

Now onto the direct predecessor of and partial inspiration for the current movement on campus.  Community members formed The Real Silent Sam Coalition in August 2011 to “to create honest public dialogue and provoke critical thought surrounding the monuments and buildings in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.”[ii] The Real Silent Sam Coalition created a fake plaque and affixed it the side of Silent Sam to contextualize its racist history.  The group also of successfully pushed for the renaming of Saunders Hall, which was originally named after 19th century Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders. However, the university insisted on “Carolina Hall” rather than the Coalition’s preferred “Hurston Hall” to honor black UNC alumnus Zora Neale Hurston. UNC’s Board of Trustees responded by calling for a 16-year freeze on renaming other campus buildings.[iii]

Finally—our contemporary movement. The most recent, consistent opposition to Silent Sam at UNC began with a sizeable protest against the statue in August 2017. Following the protest, students and community members began a 24-hour sit-in.  UNC Police removed activists’ necessities—such as sleeping bags and tarps—after 10 days, arguing that “temporary structures” were not allowed.

Opponents of Silent Sam have also tried addressing the illegal nature of the statue. Attorney Hampton Dellinger sent a letter to UNC’s administration in September 2017 on behalf of students and faculty, arguing that the statue created a racially hostile learning environment and therefore violated federal law. Administrators responded by welcoming students to take their complaint to the university’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

Silence Sam activists have distributed informational flyers to passersby, particularly during sports games, to provide context for Silent Sam. This is when activists began to receive death threats.

Silence Sam activists created temporary placards around the statue and surrounding areas to add context to the statue (as if it were in a museum.) UNC Police ripped these up and threw them in the trash in April 2018.

In October 2017 Silence Sam activists initiated Boycott UNC against commercial goods on campus. Nourish UNC offered affordable food to boycotters, but when Chancellor Folt told administrators to “shut [Nourish] down immediately” for lack of permits, Nourish generously offered food for free.

Members of the Silence Sam movement have also regularly attended monthly Public Comments sections of UNC’s Board of Governors meetings to ask the statue be removed .  However, the BOG hasn’t responded since May 2017.[iv] See the most recent comments here, all of which oppose Silent Sam:

 

Many UNC academic departments have issued statements to administrators, openly opposing Silent Sam’s presence on campus.[v]  Various UNC historians have also written op eds appealing to the administration to remove the statue. [vi]

In April 2018, Maya Little, in an act of civil disobedience, contextualized the statue’s racist history by pouring her own blood and red paint on Silent Sam. She not only faces criminal charges, but UNC’s Honor Court decided to launch its own investigation, which could result in Maya’s expulsion. Various emails sent to administrators about a change.org petition with nearly 6,500 signatures that called for the Honor Court to drop their charges, UNC administration has never responded.

The UNC community rallied around Maya. You can see some of the public statements of support, including from various academic departments, here: http://silencesam.com/mayalittle/  These statements also uniformly call for the removal of Silent Sam.

A mystery group of distinguished professors at UNC  known as G17 (@G17UNCLoud), threatened to remove the statue with force, giving the administration a strict deadline. G17 did not follow through with their threat, though they maintain their twitter account.

Silence Sam activists attended a UNC Board of Trustee meeting, after administration announced it had spent nearly $400,000 in one year to protect Silent Sam. Protestors held signs showing all ways that money could have benefited community.[vii]

Most recently, UNC PhD candidate Jerry J. Wilson was so frustrated with UNC’s refusal to remove Silent Sam or to release the (doubtlessly negative) results of their 2016 “Campus climate survey,” that he announced he would wear a noose around his neck until UNC removed the statue.

 

Moving towards a conclusion, activists have attempted to remove Silent Sam from UNC for over 50 years and the current movement has used MANY techniques to do so. Yet still today UNC’s administration actively CHOOSES to ignore pleas of Silent Sam’s opponents. As recent as three weeks ago UNC system President Margaret Spellings and BOG Chairmen Harry Smith reiterated their refusal to act on Silent Sam.[viii]

Well beyond being non-responsive to UNC activists, administrators have surveilled their own students. An undercover UNC police officer was caught infiltrating the sit-in, though administrators claimed it was for activists’ own protection.

UNC administration has also shown that their interests lie with donors, rather than the wants and needs of our campus community. See various @topplethemall tweets, for example:

UNC Board of Trustee member Allie Ray McCullen even refers to Silent Sam protestors as “entitled wimps” in official emails.

 

I think highlighting the various tactics of the Silence Sam movement shows sufficiently the way that the community has exhausted the “civil” means of attracting the attention of UNC administrators. If Silent Sam was to be removed, it required a community working together.

 

Reference List

[i] The University Archive at UNC Chapel Hill, “A Guide to Resources about UNC’s Confederate Monument,” https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/exhibits/show/silent-sam/timeline

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://alumni.unc.edu/news/trustees-vote-to-rename-saunders-hall-put-16-year-freeze-on-renamings/

[iv] https://www.northcarolina.edu/Board-Governors/UNC-Board-Governors-Public-Comment-Session

[v] See for example UNC’s Department of History’s statement: https://history.unc.edu/silentsam/ 

[vi] http://silencesam.com/silent-sam-in-the-press/

[vii] http://amp.newsobserver.com/news/local/article215101155.html

[viii] https://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2018/07/28/unc-board-of-governors-chair-no-action-on-silent-sam/

 

 

 

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