Sam, a Confederate soldier, stands tall and stoic, rifle across his chest, in the middle of the upper quad at UNC-Chapel Hill. Made of stone, he is in full uniform, is wearing shoes, does not appear to have diarrhea and is not at all bedraggled, which makes him unlike an actual Confederate soldier during the Civil War.
Sunday was his 100th birthday. But the 65 or so people that came to the celebration weren’t there to honor Sam. A female student, who was lightly bedraggled, walked around handing out multi-colored daisies asking, “Would you like to commemorate the death of the old South?”
Sam was erected in 1913 by the Daughters of the Confederacy to commemorate 321 UNC alumni who died during the war and to remember “duty is the sublimest word in the English language,” as his inscription reads. Demonstrators who attended Sunday’s event would rather Sam be remembered as a monument to the post-Reconstruction South, a time when whites consolidated power by establishing Jim Crow laws.
Sunday’s demonstration was organized by Real Silent Sam and Sacrificial Poets, two organizations that in recent years have protested the statue through performance art. (Listen to audio from the event below.)
At the statue’s unveiling 100 years ago, Julian Carr, namesake of nearby Carrboro and whose name is stamped on at least one campus building, captured the spirit of the times:
“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”
Carr, a Confederate general himself, goes on to say, according to a university transcript, that the “purest strain” of white blood was still to be found in the South at the time, because of the duty performed by Confederate soldiers. He then asked the crowd’s pardon for conveying this anecdote:
“One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterward slept with a double-barrel shotgun under my head.”
After the Civil War, white and black Southerners drafted the state constitution. African-Americans held elected office and important government positions. But as centralized federal control of the Southern states dissipated, white dominance was reasserted, through discrimination laws.
Matthew Taylor, 19, is a member of Sacrificial Poets and a UNC student. He doesn’t necessarily want Sam taken down, just a separate plaque erected that acknowledges the existence of white supremacy in the South.
“We’re here at Chapel Hill and this is known as this progressive, liberal community that prides itself on a diverse community, but I walk through here and what I see [in Silent Sam] is a legacy of oppression to us African-Americans,” Taylor says. “It’s hypocritical.”
The university has brushed off requests by student groups to erect a plaque explaining the post-Reconstruction era of the early 1900s, which gave birth to Sam. Officials have offered to put such a plaque somewhere else on campus.
The university public relations staff issued a statement, not attributable to any real human being, to INDY Week, noting Sam’s controversial history. “It is appropriate and fitting that our own students and other members of the Real Silent Sam Coalition have chosen the 100th anniversary to shine a light” on Sam’s history, the statement reads.
Zaina Alsous, a recent UNC graduate, says university officials don’t seem likely to act. “When we ask the university about this, they say, ‘Why are you being loud about this? Why are you making a big deal about this?’ They want us to quiet down about Silent Sam.”
But the organizers who stood around Silent Sam are not quieting down; many are part of a core group that has also been protesting North Carolina’s General Assembly on Moral Mondays. They are busy trying to define what liberalism looks like in the new South.
While Sam remains unaltered, they have him to hold up as the symbolic opposite of North Carolina’s motto: Esse Quam Viderito be, rather than to seem.
This article appeared in print with the headline “After 100 years, still talking.”