Administrators at the University of North Carolina are proposing a new $5.3 million building to safely house a controversial Confederate monument that was toppled by protesters in August.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said that experts concluded that the rifle-carrying statue, known as “Silent Sam,” could not be returned to its previous home on campus because of public safety concerns.
However, the statue also cannot legally be moved to a museum, mausoleum or cemetery because of a state law that limits the removal of public monuments.
So the university plans to build a new indoor facility on campus to house Silent Sam, Folt said on Monday. The new building, at a proposed cost of $5.3 million plus another $800,000 in annual operating costs, will provide historical context for the statue and for the university’s broader history. The project is expected to be completed in early- to mid-2022, according to university documents.
“(We plan to) make it a truly strong interactive center that tells our full history of this university, from before settlement to its emergence this day as one of the leading public state research universities in America,” Folt said.
The proposed solution takes a middle course in trying to appeal to the statue’s opponents, who say it glorified the Confederacy’s support of slavery, while also accommodating those who see the statue as remembering a key part of the university’s history.
Dominque L. Brodie, a university senior and the political action committee co-chair for the Black Student Movement at UNC, said the proposal was not as bad as he expected.
“From what I’ve read and seen so far, I still don’t agree with it being placed on campus,” he said. “I understand the limitations and that it’s probably not realistic to get it placed off campus. I think, from my perspective, this is the best solution that I could have hoped for realistically.”
The facility and statue would be available to the public, but with buffers and security around it to protect public safety, Folt said. Several UNC officials said their first preference was to move the statue off campus, but they were limited by state law.
A summary of the proposal was sent to the Board of Governors, and a report with more specifics was made public, Folt said.
Hundreds of people protested the university’s plan on campus Monday night, according to CNN affiliate WTVD-TV. The protest started peacefully, but took a turn when protesters reached the spot where Silent Sam once stood. Chapel Hill police used force to keep protesters from bum-rushing the area, WTVD reported.
Statue honored the Confederacy
In August, on the eve of the first day of classes, a group of protesters knocked over the controversial statue. Chancellor Folt called the protest “unlawful and dangerous” but acknowledged that the statue was a longstanding source of division for students, staff and alumni alike.
“The monument has been divisive for years, and its presence has been a source of frustration for many people, not only on our campus, but throughout the community,” she said.
Silent Sam was dedicated in 1913 – its construction at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy – to remember the “sons of the University who died for their beloved Southland 1861-1865,” says UNC’s website.
At its dedication, Confederate veteran Julian Shakespeare Carr praised the Confederate army for “sav[ing] the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” according to the university’s archives.
The monument, which was first called “Silent Sam” in 1954 by campus newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, faced only occasional protests and defacing over the years. In an attempt to add context, a monument to slaves – called the Unsung Founders Memorial – was dedicated 100 feet away in 2005.
Campaigns to remove Confederate monuments from public property gained traction after the 2015 murder of nine African-Americans by a self-described white supremacist at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Since then, Confederate statues, monuments and flags have come down in North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Maryland and elsewhere.
“This is part of a much bigger cultural reckoning, but one much rooted in the American South. We live in a culture and country that hasn’t sufficiently reckoned with its darker history,” said Cary Levine of the UNC faculty executive committee, which moderated a dozen workshops on the statue’s future.
Students react to decision to keep statue on campus
The future of Silent Sam had been a topic of discussion for months among the university’s students, staff, faculty and the wider Chapel Hill community. Several students and faculty that CNN contacted on Monday said they recognized the proposal was a compromise but still expressed frustration with the decision.
Emily Blackburn, the undergraduate student vice president who chairs a student advisory committee to the chancellor, said the proposal was a surprise to everyone.
“I think the immediate reaction was disappointment because it’s not going to be moved off campus. It’s not ideal (that) this proposal is the monument returning to campus,” she said.
Still, she said student leaders are focusing on the future and accepting this as reality.
Associate professor of art Cary Levine said that he heard negative feedback from students at an art history class after the meeting.
“Students (were) riled up and just don’t understand why the university is committing to building a $5.3 million building to house what to them is a symbol of pain and white supremacy,” Levine said. “I think that I sympathize with that point of view.”
He said he felt that the plan was designed to placate everyone while satisfying no one, a decision that he had difficulty accepting.
“As much as I understand the politics, this feels wrong-headed. It feels more designed for politics more than what is right,” he said.
Malinda Maynor Lowery, an associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South, said it was unfortunate that the proposal ignored the wishes of UNC black faculty members who called for the statue’s removal.
“I think that from a historian’s perspective, we’d like to analyze these artifacts, but we also like to have robust discussion about where they belong in our community life today,” she said.
She also cautioned that the plan still has to be approved by the Board of Governors and other leadership bodies.
“Until I know that this plan has the endorsement of the legislature that passed the law preventing the removal of the monument, I won’t feel comfortable that North Carolina and political representatives are ready to disavow this white supremacist history,” she said.