Dr. Altha Cravey, a tenured professor of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, knew she was unlikely to hear anything about the ongoing “Silent Sam” controversy at a high powered Tuesday gathering in Chapel Hill.
The meeting, with panels moderated by UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC alum Frank Bruni of the New York Times, was designed to tout UNC system President Margaret Spellings’ vision for the university and mark the 11th anniversary of the 2006 Spellings Commission Report that was issued during her tenure as U.S. education secretary.
“It was kind of love fest for Spellings — they never address real controversies and ongoing issues at these things,” Cravey said in an interview Wednesday. “I hoped that we would hear a little about this division on the UNC Board of Governors, but I knew we wouldn’t — and I knew we wouldn’t hear about Silent Sam.”
Cravey, a faculty member with a long history of activism, decided to take matters into her own hands. During Spellings’ keynote speech, Cravey wrote two hashtags on a piece of paper and raised them up from her table.
On one side of the paper Cravey wrote #SpellCheck, a Twitter hashtag dating back to the UNC Board of Governors’ controversial ouster of Tom Ross as UNC System president and Spellings’ installation in the position.
On the other she wrote “Margaret Spellings won’t #DefendCivilRights” — a hashtag with which UNC students and faculty protested the Board of Governors’ stripping of the UNC Center for Civil Rights of its ability to litigate.
The civil rights hashtag is now more relevant than ever, Cravey said — and now it connects the Center for Civil Rights controversy to the Silent Sam protests the administration and Board of Governors want to ignore.
“Of course, I didn’t have my sign up long before a cop came over and whispered in my ear and asked me to put it down” Cravey said. “When I didn’t, he told me to leave. He wouldn’t let me walk out the door I came in — he marched me through another door with a line of cops there.”
Last week, the North Carolina Historical Commission delayed a decision about moving three Confederate monuments out of downtown Raleigh, hoping to gather more legal input on the vague 2015 law that puts the issue in their laps.
Activists pushing for the state to take down the statues were angry and disappointed, but UNC students were frustrated on a whole other level. Silent Sam — the Confederate monument on the quad at the UNC campus at Chapel Hill — wasn’t even on the list of statues being considered.
“The university may not have the power to unilaterally move Silent Sam, but they can petition the commission to have it removed,” said Michelle Rolanda Brown, a UNC student who is helping organize the effort to remove the statue. “They haven’t even done that.”
The statue of a Confederate soldier, erected in 1913 as a tribute to UNC students who fought for the South during the Civil War, has drawn controversy for decades. But in the wake of deadly violence at a white supremacist rally over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia and the toppling of a Confederate monument in Durham, the push to remove the statue has taken on new urgency.
Brown is one of about 40 students, staff and faculty actively organizing to change that — first with a boycott of businesses on the UNC campuses from the dining hall to chains like Wendy’s and Starbucks. That boycott will last until October 18, Brown said — at which point the group will roll out another, different campaign to keep pressure on the administration until Silent Sam is gone.
“We wanted the boycott as the first step to last a month because we wanted there to be time for it to build up,” Brown said. “But we also didn’t want the administration to think there was a time limit on it, that they could just wait it out. So we’ll be making more asks and keeping it going.”
Brown’s group is pushing for the repeal of the 2015 law, which she said needlessly complicates the process of dealing with the monuments.
“I’ve read that law several times and it’s very difficult to understand,” Brown said. “The school and the community should really be able to make this decision.”
Ideally, Brown said, the statue would be removed and not re-erected anywhere. But because the current law says that any monument that is removed must be placed in a place of similar prominence, they are hoping it will at least be put somewhere — like Memorial Hall, for instance — where students only need see it by choice, and hopefully with some historical context provided.
“It does not deserve to be in a place of honor, on a pedestal, on the entrance to our campus,” Cravey said. “It must come down. The only question is when it will come down. Given the national mood and the violence that the ‘Lost Cause’ is inspiring around the country, we can’t have something like that here on our campus. We can prevent that. We don’t need to invite tragedy.”
The University of Virginia and University of North Carolina are very similar communities, Cravey said — well regarded public universities where racial tensions have long simmered and where, in the current environment, they’re ready to explode.
“We have a chance to prevent another Charlottesville, to take down a monument that we know attracts white supremacists, that white supremacists want to defend while the students and the faculty want it gone,” Cravey said.
Late last week attorneys for the university responded to a threatened federal lawsuit from students over the statue.
The students contend that its presence creates a monument to white supremacy on campus that creates a hostile learning environment for students.
In its response, the university says it disagrees that the students have a valid civil rights claim under Titles IV and VI of federal law. It suggests they take their complaint to the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Hampton Dellinger, the Durham attorney and former N.C. Deputy Attorney General who represents the students, penned a response of his own Friday:
I am surprised that UNC is contesting the fact that Silent Sam creates a racially hostile environment. The case law is clear that even a single verbal or visual incident can cause a hostile environment and that Confederate symbols are evidence of racial harassment. In light of these precedents, we believe the courts will conclude that a towering armed soldier dedicated to white supremacy and placed permanently in the middle of campus creates a hostile environment for some African American students. UNC claims to have contrary administrative guidance, but we have not seen it and the university has not identified it. It is time for UNC to acknowledge federal law and focus on removal not resistance.”
UNC’s student government and faculty council agree the statue should be removed.
Earlier this month a group of 22 faculty members wrote a letter to Chancellor Carol Folt urging her to take such action:
“Acknowledging that interpretations of the university’s legal options may differ, we call on you, as a first step in the prompt removal of this objectionable object, to state publicly and unequivocally your position on the ideology and version of history with which it is associated,” the faculty members wrote. “We also urge you in the strongest possible terms to work to ensure the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff involved in the active protest movement that has arisen around the monument, and to work with the protesters to achieve the goal we all share.”
Folt and UNC System President Margaret Spellings have been under pressure on the issue from the North Carolina General Assembly’s GOP leadership and a conservative wing of the UNC Board of Governors, which is dominated by Republican political appointees.
While many faculty members are taking Folt and Spellings to task for not pushing harder to remove Silent Sam, many acknowledge the difficult position in which the UNC administration finds itself. In a political environment in which academic centers opposed by state lawmakers are being shut down, strongly opposing the legislature and the board of governors could have real costs.
Still, students like Brown say, it’s worth standing on principle.
“We believe that the students and the faculty, the university community, should make this decision and the chancellor should support that,” Brown said.
Folt met privately with a group of about 50 students and faculty Tuesday in a discussion initiated by the Black Student Movement. Afterward, a number of students said they were dissatisfied. Brown was among them.
In the meeting, closed to media to allow for a more open discussion, Brown said Folt and two vice chancellors alternated between being ignorant of the statue’s history and condescending about how students see it.
“One of the first questions asked was, ‘Do you think that the statue represents or stands for white supremacy or racism and why or why not?’” Brown said. “They couldn’t even answer that softball question, which they should have been prepared for.”
Folt admitted she didn’t know much about the history of Silent Sam, Brown said. Students offered to meet with her again with UNC historians so that she could become more informed.
That history includes the statue’s dedication, at which Durham businessman and Confederate veteran Julian Carr gave a speech on how Confederate soldiers had “saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South.” In the same speech, Carr bragged of “horse-whipping a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds,” because she had disrespected a white woman on Franklin Street.
“We’ve asked her to get those facts and once she’s collected those facts, issue a statement,” Brown said. “We hope the chancellor, being the intelligent woman she is, will come to the conclusion that the statue represents white supremacy once she has all the facts and will then represent the students in asking that it be taken down.”
Brown said her group will continue the pressure on the administration and hope to get Silent Sam on the historical commission’s April meeting agenda one way or another.