Good riddance to ‘Silent Sam,’ UNC’s toppled Civil War statue. Don’t bring him back.

Stone statues honoring the dead helped draw me to the University of North Carolina.

Thomas Wolfe wrote unforgettably of his father the stonecutter in Look Homeward, Angel, a classic coming-of-age novel. After reading Angel, I knew I must go to Chapel Hill.

Back in the 1960s when I was at “Pulpit Hill, as Wolfe called the university in his autobiographical work, I was blind to the full history of another monument to the dead. This bronze one was of a far different nature from the stonecutter’s creations.

“Silent Sam,” shown here in an old file shot, was a Civil War soldier who had acquired his name because he bore no ammunition. White students saw Sam as benign. Here was a landmark to sit and perhaps get drunk on. Most of the local Caucasians regarded Sam just as a tribute to the many UNC students and alumni who had fought bravely in the Civil War.

I took a class from the brilliant George Tindall, a leading Southern historian, and learned in detail of lynchings and the dark Dixie populism that would help pave the way for the Trumpist variety. For Tindall or perhaps on my own, I read David Chalmers‘s Hooded Americanism. Surely a genteel university town like Chapel Hill was above the more outrageous manifestations of Kluxery. What I did not know, and what even Professors Tindall and Chalmers probably did not, was that Silent Sam himself could have merited a harrowing mention in the latter’s book.

At Sam’s dedication in 1913, speakers praised the courage of the Confederates from UNC—I haven’t the least issue with that. But racist myths notwithstanding, the South fought the Civil War mainly to a defend a multi-billion-dollar investment in slaves. And an ugly speech, forgotten until rediscovered in 2009 by a then-graduate student named Adam Domby, was vile enough to balance out all the talk of brave student-soldiers.

The orator, Julian Shakespeare Carr, was not just an ex-Confederate private transformed into a rich UNC trustee with the honorary title of “general.” He was a persistent and passionate booster of the Ku Klux Klan. Fortified with classical allusions, his dedication speech was far more flowery than demagogic rants in front of burning crosses. But the hate was the same:

“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. 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 afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”

Defend Sam with all the standard excuses; yes, 500 members of the university community may have died in the war or of related causes. But in the end, wittingly or not, you’ll be dog-whistling in memory of full-throated racists like Julian Carr. Let Southerns honor their beloved dead as individuals—but not Carr’s true cause dedicated to the enslavement of fellow human beings. Silent Sam should be relegated to a museum with large signage placing him in historical context. We must not erase but learn from history. But Sam’s very location provided the wrong context.

I am saddened that UNC administrators, while condemning Sam as divisive, failed to try as hard as they could to use legal means to banish Sam from the university’s upper quad facing Franklin Street. Such an essential job was left to protestors. They pulled Sam down from his pedestal on August 20 after having vandalized him in the past. Miraculously the police somehow allowed it to happen, without injuries or loss of life, even though the university had been spending about $400,000 year on Sam’s security. Of course, the protestors broke the law. But given the lack of alternatives, the statue’s toppling was a praiseworthy act of civil disobedience. The protestors should be arrested and fined—$1 each—and go through life proud of their police records.

Like my own state of Virginia, North Carolina has a law protecting public monuments. There are even provisions for restoring removed monuments to their previous locations or ones of similar prominence. May this not happen! If so, large corporations should take a stand against Tar Heel racism, just as they did with boycott threats against North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, fortunately repealed. For full clarification of the legal situation, the law protecting Sam should be amended or, ideally, stricken from the books. Passed by a viciously racist Republican state legislature, in part the product of gerrymandering and voter suppression, the law even says that a statue cannot be relocated to “museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location.”

University officials could help by telling Democratic Governor Roy Cooper that return of Sam really would threaten public safety. He had provided them with a similar opportunity before, but they did not respond as meaningfully as they could have. As of August 23, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt would neither reveal the statue’s current location nor tell whether Sam would return to the old one. Almost surely she and UNC System President Margaret Spellings are not bigots; nor, let me add, would I automatically apply that pejorative to every one of Sam genuine supporters. I just wish UNC had been more forceful in fighting the old prejudices that Sam symbolizes even at one of the South’s more enlightened schools. As late as 1938, saying that the State Legislature must decide, the university denied admission to an African American hoping to attend the school of social work, the very kind of place devoted to better lives for the have-nots. A racist student, in fact, threatened to tar and feather any people of color who accompanied Pauli Murray to class.

The university’s atonement should be an ongoing process. It is with me. While at UNC, I myself ridiculed the Klan and the racist Sen. Jesse Helms in the Daily Tar Heel, the school newspaper Wolfe had once edited, but I still could have shown far more sensitivity on racial issues, especially those intertwined with the Vietnam War. These days I have tried to make it up through such efforts as a proposal for a national library endowment, which, among other things, could provide scholarships to people of color aspiring toward librarianship.

Disappointingly, the library profession’s diversity statistics are abysmal. In 2012 there were just 563 credentialed black male librarians, for example, despite their value as role models. Minority neighborhoods especially have suffered when school districts cut back or close K-12 libraries. Politicians and perhaps certain librarians need to atone, too. It is wrong not to deplore Sam and other racist trappings of the American past. It is even worse not to care sufficiently about the injustices of the present.

A good response to the library world’s minority crisis would be to work toward a privately funded national library endowment, one of whose purposes would be the provision of enough money for scholarships and advocacy to address minority needs whether or not politicians are receptive. This need not be a pipe dream. Just ten Americans are together worth more than half a trillion dollars; 400, more than $2.5 or so trillion.

So far, however, the American Library Association has refused to issue even a brief endorsement of the basic endowment idea. ALA says it lacks the “bandwidth.” Really? Aren’t most cosmic issues “bandwidth”-intensive? Couldn’t ALA partner with Harvard or another wealthy institution on a conference bringing together librarians, prospective donors and other stakeholders? Would ALA feel the same if more schools in well-off white neighborhoods were losing their librarians? Another reason exists for the proposed endowment. Libraries help give voters of all colors a sense of history, which, after all, must be preceded by a certain level of curiosity and literacy—at the core of what libraries should be about. Come on, ALA. Where’s the reflection?

Thomas Wolfe fought his own internal battles. A lover was Jewish, but many critics saw tinges of anti-Semitism—in fact, much worse—in his life and work. Even so, we can all aspire.

I’m reminded of the beautiful lines from Angel about the protagonist’s father: “He never found it. He never learned to carve an angel’s head. The dove, the lamb, the smooth joined marble hands of death, and letters fair and fine—but not the angel.” Still, we can at least try to carve our own angel’s heads.

Updates in the Washington Post: Three people charged, and UNC prepares for possible protests, after Confederate monument Silent Sam is toppled and Protesters clash, arrests mount after toppling of Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Photo credit: Yellowspacehopper, via Wikipedia. Creative Commons 3.0.

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David Rothman

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