A Confederate monument that had stood on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill until protesters tore it down in August would be moved to a new, $5.3 million history and education center under a proposal UNC-Chapel Hill trustees voted Monday to send to the UNC system’s Board of Governors.
The Board of Governors, which tasked the trustees with coming up with a recommendation no later than Monday, would have the ultimate say in what happens to Silent Sam, as the monument is known. The Board of Governors’ next meeting is December 14.
UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt unveiled the proposal during a special meeting of the trustees, describing a broader plan to “develop more ways to tell a fuller, more honest history” of the university. Part of that plan is the proposed history and education center, which would be located at the former Odum Village student housing site, between UNC’s business school and hospital parking, and would include exhibits and classroom space in addition to housing Silent Sam. The plan calls for the center to be complete in 2022.
The proposal also calls for a reconfiguration of McCorkle Place, a grassy plaza just off Franklin Street where Silent Sam had stood since being dedicated in 1913 with remarks by Julian Carr, a prominent philanthropist and white supremacist who boasted in his speech about “horse-whipping a negro wench.”
In meetings, public comments and protests, students and faculty have said Silent Sam is a monument to white supremacy, a reminder of slavery and a war to preserve it, and a threat to their personal safety on campus. The statue has drawn neo-Confederate gatherings and been the site of protests where police pepper-sprayed, detained and struggled with students. Hundreds of UNC faculty members have publicly called for the statue’s removal, with some suggesting during workshops that it be buried, melted down or sunk “on a similar manner as the Terracotta Army soldiers.”
The logistics for the history and education center aren’t fully ironed out, as the proposal still needs the approval of the Board of Governors. Folt said the university does not have the estimated $5.3 million to build it, and would likely make a funding request to the Board of Governors.
“This is so important to us that we are going to make it happen,” she told reporters after the meeting. “Until we get approval we’re sort of guessing in advance of the process.” Folt said the statue and accompanying plaques would be stored in a “safe, secure location” until the facility is done.
#UNC trustees making remarks to media on #SilentSam recommendation https://t.co/Z1STBBD2qj
— Indy Week (@indyweek) December 3, 2018
Folt and trustees reiterated several times throughout the morning that re-locating the statue off-campus would be their first choice, but that state law limits their ability to do so.
A 2015 state law restricts the removal of objects of remembrance, like Silent Sam.
That law says objects of remembrance cannot be removed or relocated without approval from the North Carolina Historical Commission. Such objects can be relocated to preserve them or to make way for construction, but “shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.”
“We think this actually probably gets better activity and access in a way that could be quite exciting especially as we’re teaching these things and we’re planning this to have active exhibits,” Folt said when asked if Odum Village is similarly prominent to McCorkle Place.
The monument was torn down on August 20, by a crowd that first draped it in sheets before bringing the figure of the young Confederate soldier toppling to the ground. Students and faculty have called for the statue’s removal for decades, with protests intensifying since the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. After protesters pulled down a Confederate monument in downtown Durham in 2017, Governor Roy Cooper said UNC could remove Silent Sam under a “public safety” exception to state law; UNC leaders disagreed that the exception applied to Silent Sam.
UNC General Counsel Mark Merritt said during Monday’s meeting that the trustees’ recommendation satisfies both criteria – preservation and construction – for moving a monument laid out in the law. Keeping the monument at McCorkle place is “simply not feasible,” he said. The Odum Village site would be similarly prominent because it shares “similar attributes” as an on-campus location with growth potential and easy access, he said.
“We know from experience and from our security consultants that preservation is going to be an incredible challenge if it’s not in an indoor location,” Merritt said. “When it comes to indoor location, to meet security requirements, it really tilts very heavily in favor of new construction and a site that can be configured with security considerations in mind.”
It would cost about $800,000 per year to operate the center, which Folt said includes programming and staff. She added that trustees in 2015 voted to study the feasibility of a public space to tell UNC’s history.
On August 28, the Board of Governors passed a resolution asking the Board of Trustees in Chapel Hill to “provide a plan for a lawful and lasting path that protects public safety, preserves the monument and its history and allows the university to focus on its core mission of education, research, economic stimulation and creating the next generation of scholars.”
Folt said public safety was the trustees’ top criteria as they evaluated twenty potential sites for the monument, including its original location in McCorkle Place as well as off-campus sites. Folt said in August that “Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming and proudly public research university.”
Folt said the university would continue discussions about possibly moving Silent Sam off-campus while moving forward with the history and education center. The North Carolina Museum of History was considered, Folt said, but moving Silent Sam there would require a change in law (state law says an object of remembrance can only be relocated to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum if it was originally placed in such a place).
Two trustees – student body president Savannah Putnam and Allie Ray McCullen – voted against the recommendation. Putnam said while the Odum Village location is the best on-campus location university leadership could come up with, she couldn’t “support putting the Confederate monument back up.”
“I personally don’t believe that this statute has any place on this campus,” she said.
William Keyes, the only African-American trustee, voted to support the recommendation, but only after saying the monument is a reminder of the “evil of slavery” and persisting inequities between black and white Americans.
“While the stated objective of the monument is to honor the memories of Carolina students who left school to fight in the war, we cannot – at least I cannot – ignore what the war was fought over: slavery,” he said.
Reactions to the recommendation were swift; A protest against the “$5.3 million on-campus shrine to house Silent Sam” was announced on social media within minutes of the recommendation being posted online. (Read the board’s recommendation as well as appendices with cost and legal analyses.)
TONIGHT AT 7PM, JOIN US TO PROTEST AGAINST UNC CHAPEL HILL’S RECOMMENDATION TO BUILD A $5.3 MILLION ON-CAMPUS SHRINE TO HOUSE SILENT SAM! Peace & Justice Plaza (in front of the Franklin St. Post Office). #silentsam https://t.co/GzdLs14PR4 Invite everyone. This is not okay.
— Take Action Chapel Hill (@takeactionch) December 3, 2018