BY: KYLE ANN SEBASTIAN
Silent Sam means different things to different people. To some, he is a monument that honors and memorializes those students of the University that fought in the Civil War. Julian Carr, former UNC student and namesake of Carrboro, saw it as a reminder of “what the Confederate soldier means to the Anglo-Saxon race.” Zaina Alsous, a member of the Real Silent Sam Committee, called the statue a testament to the “history of racial discrimination and exclusion on our campus,” including the University’s more recent history.
Member of the Chapel Hill community gathered at 4pm on Sunday for a demonstration to mark the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of UNC’s Silent Sam monument. The event was organized by the Real Silent Sam Committee and the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP. For the past two year, the Real Silent Sam Committee has campaigned for the addition of a plaque that details the history of Silent Sam as a celebration of the end of Reconstruction and the codification of Jim Crow laws. While the committee has garnered community support, as evidenced by the diverse crowd of students and residents at Sunday’s event, they have also experienced backlash, including an op-ed in the Daily Tar Heel telling them to “quiet down.” During his time as chancellor Holden Thorp largely avoided the issue, instead suggesting the addition of a plaque to the Unsung Founders Monument instead.
Despite a focus on UNC and North Carolina’s history of racism, the overall tone of the demonstration was decidedly forward looking. Before the speeches began committee members passed out daisies to attendees, who were invited to lay them at the base of the monument. This was intended to honor those forgotten or silenced by history, while simultaneously representing the death of the Old South and the birth of the New South.
Speakers stressed Silent Sam’s power as a symbol of racism, slavery, and violence against women of color, asking the crowd: “What is said in Sam’s silence?”
Alsous and other committee members connected Silent Sam to issues of racial, gender, and economic equality confronting the Chapel Hill community today. Although separated by 100 years, a common thread of systemic racism and oppression connects the black woman Julian Carr bragged about beating in his speech at Sam’s dedication and the UNC housekeepers, predominantly women of color, alleging abuse and calling for better working conditions. This same thread connects the Jim Crow policies put in place by 1913 and celebrated by Silent Sam and legislation being discussed in the General Assembly that makes up “an agenda that disproportionately harms people of color,” according to Alsous, including voter id laws, and cuts to health care and education spending.
Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II, President of the North Carolina NAACP, ended the evening with a speech that bordered on sermon and seemed to transform the demonstration into a congregation.
Barber challenged acceptance of Silent Sam as history, calling him, and everything he represents, a “history of denial [and] a history of oppression” that seeks to silence all but a few privileged voices. He warned that the failure to acknowledge the full history of Silent Sam and North Carolina would allow for it to be repeated. “You can’t cast out a demon until you name it,” said Barber.
Like those before him, Barber connected the past to the present, condemning the conservative agenda of the NCGA that “traces back to racist elements in our history.” Barber called on the citizens of North Carolina to remember their history and challenge regressive policies such as “modern day poll taxes called voter id.”
Barber closed with a call for “fusion politics” and a coalition based in “values that are bigger than black and white.”
“Silent Sam has never been silent. He is meant to speak by being here. He speaks racism. He speaks hurt to women, particularly black women,” said Barber. “Since Sam is not really silent, we can’t be silent. The Moral Monday Movement must be louder than Sam and his echo.”
“This state ain’t seen nothing yet.”