Fight Over 'Silent Sam' Confederate Statue At UNC Continues

Oct 26, 2015

The pick-up trucks and cars adorned with Confederate and American flags flapping in the air were hard to miss as they rolled down Franklin Street.

As the caravan came to a stop, one woman got out of her truck with a flag wrapped around her waist. Others sported rebel caps and Confederate t-shirts.

"When we get up there, we're going to stand together and we're going to form a circle around [Silent Sam]," said organizer Gary Williamson. 

In a parking lot, dozens of protesters nodded their heads as Williamson went over the game plan and reminded them why they are there. Williamson is part of a group called "Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County," which aims to preserve Southern rights, according to the Facebook page. 

"Them men died and this school ought to stand up for the monument up there cause this is part of their history too. These are the men who died from their school," Williamson said. "Why they would not honor that, I don't know." 

Williamson is talking about a bronze 1913 statue called “Silent Sam.” It sits on one of the most visible lawns on campus and honors UNC alumni who fought and died in the Civil War.

But not everyone sees that heritage as honorable. Earlier this year, the statue was vandalized with the words “KKK” and “Murderer.” To many students, the monument  of the confederate soldier raising a gun is a symbol of white supremacy. And they made it clear to the people quietly marching toward the statue, with confederate flags in hand.

"Go home. We hate you. Go home," yelled one man, who didn't give his name and shouted profanity. 

As they got closer, the group was met with more angry protesters. A lot more.

"Hey, hey. Ho, ho, this racist statue has got to go!" a group of community members and students shouted. 

The statue was barricaded by metal fences that separated the two groups on either side. Dozens of police officers stood guard. On one side, they sang Dixie. On the other, chants like “Black people built the South.”

Silent Sam supporters like Gary Williamson scoffed. He said his ancestors fought for freedom.

"There are so many things that we fought for that had absolutely nothing to do with racism or slavery," he said. "And they have no idea or anything about that. They go on propaganda websites off of Facebook or whatever, and stuff like that, and they get mad and stomp their feet."

"If there’s one thing racists love, it’s to be heard, even if they’re wrong," said Leah Osae, a first-year UNC pharmacy student and one of the main organizers of the counter-protest.

She said Silent Sam needs to go.

"It will come down, eventually, and they know that," she said. "That’s why they’re coming here."

The legislature recently passed a bill that would make it harder to get rid of statues and memorials. Silent Sam has been the target of many demonstrations by students who argue they haven’t felt supported by the administration.

"It's regretful that that’s the way that they perceive things," said Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs. 

He said several UNC staff members were present to make sure protesters felt safe, and that he understands the monument is divisive.

"And there are lots of different viewpoints, and at a public university all of those viewpoints get to be aired," he said.

A little later in the afternoon, a few counter-protesters made their way to the other side of the monument to confront demonstrators carrying Confederate flags. 

Several of them got into heated debates over history, the confederate flag and white privilege, while others tried to see eye-to-eye. 

UNC senior Angel Joel said she was tired of hearing people shouting over each other, so she talked with William Allen, a monument supporter from Chapel Hill, to hear what he had to say.  

"Racism has come to mean when somebody is being proud of being different by their race, that all of a sudden is racist," Allen explained to her. 

Even though Joel didn't entirely agree with his perspective, they engaged in a brief conversation about white privilege.

"I can see [the statue's] place here because it does start good conversation about the history of UNC, but I can also see its place in a museum," Allen said. 

The protesters supporting Silent Sam stayed at the statue for about three hours debating and talking with students. When they decided it was time to go, some of them took one last look at the monument and saluted.