This week we talk with Malinda Maynor Lowery and William Sturkey, both professors of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about the recent removal of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam. The monument was erected in 1913 on the upper quad known as McCorkle Place ostensibly to remember "the sons of the University who died for their beloved Southland 1861-1865.” Malinda and William note the important distinction between a memorial and a monument: a memorial honors a loss whereas a monument celebrates some new entity or concept. This distinction is vital when considering the timeline of Silent Sam’s installation on campus. Nearly 50 years after the end of the Civil War, did the administration truly intend to memorialize the dead or did it wish to declare the campus a space for celebrating Confederate values and Jim Crow practices?
The removal of Confederate monuments has been a slow process lasting several decades, but the fight has picked up speed after nine people were murdered by white supremacist Dylan Roof in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that “visitors to Charleston have long been treated to South Carolina’s attempt to clean its history and depict its secession as something other than a war to guarantee the enslavement of the majority of its residents” (source). He urged for the removal of the Confederate flag from capitol grounds in Columbia. Activist Bree Newsome removed the flag from South Carolina’s state house grounds in an act of civil disobedience in the summer 2015. Eventually, South Carolina officially removed the flag that had inspired and encouraged terrorism.
These acts of horrific violence reignited the decades-old fight to remove Confederate monuments that embolden and elevate Confederate values. In 2017, New Orleans removed four confederate monuments, including P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee. The statue of Beauregard was removed in the middle of the night by a team bound in bullet-proof gear. Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that the statue of “Robert E. Lee was used as an example to send a message to the rest of the country, and to all the people that lived here, that the Confederacy was a noble cause. And that's just not true” (source).
Furthermore, the North Carolina legislature enacted a law amidst this 2017 climate that “prevents removing, relocating, or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission” (source.) Shortly after this, a group of activists took town a statue dedicated to “the boys who wore grey” in Durham, North Carolina. Like Silent Sam, this statue was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy many years after the end of the Civil War (source).
Malinda and William discuss what this history means for the UNC Chapel Hill campus. For many, the town of Chapel Hill and the University community has long represneted one of North Carolina’s most “progressive” spaces. However, as they explain the University’s Board of Governors is a highly politicized and partisan entity that has used the controversy about the statue as a “bargaining chip” in other debates about the role of public education in the state. On August 20, 2018 protestors toppled the statue. Currently, it does not stand on campus, but there has been a debate about its potential reinstallation. What does it mean to re-erect a Confederate monument on public grounds in 2018?
As educators, Malinda and William also express their concerns about UNC students’ safety and well-being as well as the role of historians in contextualizing these issues for the larger public. Ultimately, the presence of Confederate monuments dictates who has claim on a space. As Malinda says in this episode, Silent Sam was erected by a university administration that never expected UNC Chapel Hill would someday, finally, be integrated.
We’d like to think Malinda, William, and the Center for the Study of the American South for joining us for this conversation. We’d also like to thank Goliath the pit bull for his general good cheer and wonderful recording etiquette.
More information about the Silent Sam monument: