Heather Ahn-Redding tells the UNC Board of Trustees that keeping a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on campus us akin to displaying the Confederate flag.
UNC's Board of Trustees on Tuesday morning heard from students, faculty, staff, and community members about Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on campus.
Twenty-eight people addressed the board and Chancellor Carol Folt. Most called for the statue's removal. Two explicitly said the statue should remain as a memorial to students who fought in the Civil War and to the university's history. Others favored adding more context to the monument's history, adding tributes to black figures or moving the statue to a museum or similar setting.
Folt had asked the trustees to hear from the public about the statue, which has been a point of debate on campus for decades. To that end, the trustees are also accepting comments by email.
“I wanted them to hear the caring, the humane, the thoughtful, the terrified, the angry—the full scope of voices that we hear every day, and I know it took a lot of courage for people to stand up here and say who they were and give their name and tell us how they felt," she said.
Students shared personal stories of feeling degraded and alienated by the statue's prominent place on campus and of being threatened during protests against the statue that have spanned the Fall semester. They also criticized the school's use of an undercover officer
to monitor those same protests.
"I avoid that part of campus every single day because I do not want to be confronted with the imagery that I am worth less than a person," said Mya Roberson, who is conducting cancer research through a fellowship at UNC and serves on the board of trustees for Brown University. “... You may be tempted to call me a coddled millennial and that is fine but I am human, I am black and I am fed up."
Many invoked UNC's motto—lux libertas
, meaning “light and liberty”—and the recently announced $4.25 billion "For All Kind" fundraising campaign
, saying Silent Sam's presence contradicts both. Several speakers made reference to a 1913 speech
dedicating the monument by industrial Julian Carr, in which he describes how he "horse-whipped a negro wench."
A Confederate statue at UNC known as Silent Sam draped in a banner reading #SilenceSam the day after a protest calling for the statue's removal.
David Brannigan, who works in the university's grounds services department, said he has long been active in discussions about civil rights on UNC campus. But the “last straw” for him regarding Silent Sam was the surveillance of student protesters. He also spoke about grounds employees being asked to “do the university's bidding” by removing signs and other relics from a student sit-in at the statue—a job he said campus police should do.
“That monument is a lightning rod for danger,” he said.
Several speakers described Silent Sam as a safety threat and potential rallying point for hate groups, like Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue was for the Unite the Right Rally. A medical student cited research showing the adverse health effects of exposure to racism
"It's very literally as serious as a heart attack," said Caroline Fryer.
Heather Ahn-Redding unfurled a Confederate flag and urged the board not to "normalize white supremacy" by allowing Silent Sam to remain.
“I hope everyone is distracted because this is what Silent Sam is like on campus,” she said. “It's a distraction action and it's uncomfortable. I would argue that Silent Sam is equivalent to this very flag, as they are both symbols of hate."
Board chairman Haywood Cochrane said the “incredible passion” of those who spoke struck his most.
“I don't think we were surprised, but it reinforces our feeling that this is a very personal, very emotional set of issues," he told the INDY
. “Being guided by obeying the law makes this a very difficult thing for us to grapple with but we're going to grapple with.”
A 2015 law prohibits the removal of monuments like Silent Sam without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. The statute does allow for the removal of a monument “a building inspector or similar official has determined poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.”
This summer, Governor Roy Cooper told the university it could move the statue if it presented a public safety risk, but UNC officials disagree
they have the authority to do so. Folt has said she would like to see the statue removed.
Cochrane said the board will continue to accept input online
about the statue and will reconvene to consider what they've heard, although no concrete next steps were outlined Tuesday.