Last week UNC administrators‘ recommendation of a $5.3 million history center on campus to re-house the confederate monument nicknamed Silent Sam, with an annual operating budget of $800,000, speaks loud and clear.
I will never forget the day I left my home in Davidson County and arrived on UNC’s campus as a freshman back in 1996. I was bright-eyed and eager to learn, feeling that I had left behind the confines of what I considered to be a community entrenched in racism.
I was naïve about what would become my Alma Mater but as a member of the Black Student Movement (BSM), I learned that there were many tributes to white supremacists sprinkled across the campus landscape.
Spencer Hall is named for Cornelia Phillips Spencer, the anti-reconstructionist who famously rang the bell to reopen UNC after working to ensure that black students would be barred from admission; Hamilton Hall is named after UNC professor and Jim Crow supporter J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton; the Daniels Building is named after Josephus Daniels, newspaper editor, champion for black disenfranchisement, inciter of race riots, and leading voice in what he literally called the “White Supremacy Campaign.”
And then there was what some considered to be the most in-your-face symbol. The boy soldier nicknamed “Silent Sam” has never been silent. Upon his arrival in 1913, he loudly proclaimed the university to be a white domain, offering a placeholder for white supremacy. Silent Sam embodied lamentation for the dead in a race war, defenders of a world in which should have died with the confederacy.
Last week I wrote one of the hardest stories of my career as a journalist. It called for a reference from the 1913 monument dedication, where philanthropist Julian Carr was reported as saying, “I horsewhipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds,” and called it his “pleasing duty.” Recording the audio for those words was traumatic for me and for many who will hear them. Yet they are important to share.
Back when I joined the BSM as editor of The Black Ink we used “Revolutionary Media” to present 22 demands to the university. These demands, which had been formed in the late 60’s, included a memorial that acknowledges the unnamed slaves that built the university and requests the removal of Silent Sam which happened to have his gun pointed at the building designated for African & African-American Studies.
For more than five decades, the BSM and allies protested on numerous occasions without even a nod from the university. When Maya Little, a UNC graduate student, was arrested on charges of smearing her blood on the statue just before it was toppled in August her powerful words deserved a response rather than an arrest. She said, “I literally put my blood and red ink on the statue, because the statue and all statues like it are already drenched in black blood.”
As Little and others are vowing to fight the return of what she maintains to be a symbol of racism. It saddened me to learn that student protesters continue to feel unsafe on UNC’s campus. Some told me they had been beaten and threatened by white supremacist groups, with very little support from the university.
This week, I am sad to be a Tar Heel.