UNC Alumni on Confederate statue stagnation – “We deserve better.”

UNC Alumni on Confederate statue stagnation – “We deserve better.”

Dr. Nora Dennis (photo courtesy: Duke.edu)

When Dr. Nora Dennis spoke before the UNC Board of Governors last week, her palpable frustration was shared by many UNC alumni.

Dennis, now a physician and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University, was a Morehead Scholar who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2001. She calls herself “a Tar Heel born of two Tar Heels,” with a deep family connection to the school.

Her message, she said, came from a love of her state and its flagship public university.

“In a pluralistic, multi-racial and intelligent place where truth matters and facts still exist, there is no place for Silent Sam,” Dennis said. “My family won’t be donating further until Silent Sam is removed.”

“Silent Sam” – the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus — is a perennial controversy. The decades-long movement to remove the statue gained an added urgency last year, in the wake of deadly violence at a white supremacist rally over the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA.

Shortly thereafter, Duke University voluntarily removed the Robert E. Lee statue outside of Duke Chapel.

While a large and increasing number of alumni, current students and faculty are pushing for the same sort of change at UNC, progress has been elusive.

A political quagmire

The Silent Sam issue is mired in political and cultural tensions in both the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the UNC Board of Governors, whose conservative majority the General Assembly appointed.

In 2015, as schools and communities began regularly and voluntarily removing Confederate monuments all over the country, the General Assembly passed a law preventing the removal, relocation or alteration of any monument, memorial or work of art owned by the state without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.

Gov. Roy Cooper called for the removal of Confederate statues from state property in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville.

“Some people cling to the belief that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. But history is not on their side,” Cooper wrote in a statement on the issue. “We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery. These monuments should come down.”

Cooper instigated a test case of sorts last year by petitioning the Historical Commission, a 17-member body whose members the governor appoints, to remove three Confederate statues from the State Capitol grounds in Raleigh.

Cooper met opposition from state Republican leaders, who warned members of the Historical Commission that siding with Cooper would be contrary to the spirit of the law.

A proposed amendment to the state constitution would, if passed, give the General Assembly authority over the Historical Commission as well.

The commission put together a study committee early this year, but its work has been slow and beset by delays. The full commission is scheduled to meet Aug. 22 to decide on a course of action on the three Raleigh statues. Members of the study committee have been asked to provide written statements on their positions before the meeting and come to a consensus.

Alumni like Dennis have been calling for the UNC Board of Governors to petition the Historical Commission to remove Silent Sam as well.

Personal history

The Silent Sam statue was unveiled in 1913, well after the Civil War and during a wave of white supremacist sentiment in the South that led to a number of Confederate statues going up in prominent places. At the ceremony to celebrate its placement on UNC’s campus, industrialist Julian Carr lauded the Confederate struggle to preserve “the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon” race in the South and bragged he had once “horse-whipped a negro wench” 100 yards from the statue’s home at McCorkle Place.

That’s not a history or sentiment the university needs to continue to honor, Dennis told the UNC Board of Governors last week–particularly not at a university that is home to families like hers.

“My mother and father, Black and white, met and married as undergraduates in the 1960s on UNC’s campus,” Dennis said.

The statue was already offensive to students like them, Dennis said, and grew more out of step with the university and its values as further generations of students came to campus.

“When I chose UNC over Harvard and Stanford it was because I believed in Charles Kuralt’s beautiful statement that it was a university of the people and because I loved my state and my community,” Dennis said. “The continued presence of a prominent statue celebrating white supremacy on a campus that purports to be for all of us is an insult.”

Dennis said she has heard and understands the arguments of those who say the statue honors their ancestors and that removing it from its place of prominence would be an attempt to rewrite history. She just doesn’t buy the argument. That history is hers, too.

“My children are directly descended from Confederate soldier and my brother-in-law is the great, great grandson of Stonewall Jackson,” Dennis said. “We don’t celebrate their actions.”

“Silent Sam belongs on the campus about as much as a soldier of the Third Reich,” Dennis said. “He may have been brave. He may have been a beloved relative. But his cause was not just, so we cannot celebrate his actions.”

Contradictions, but not progress

Members of the board of governors heard Dennis and others call for the board to act last week — including Harry Smith, the board’s new chairman.

They reacted with a series of confusing and contradictory statements.

At a press conference after the meeting, Smith said he respects the position and passion of those pushing for the removal of Silent Sam. He assured them the board is genuinely listening and promised a full board discussion on whether to petition the historical commission.

Smith even apologized for referring to the movement in a dismissive way in an interview with the conservative James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy).

“That was a mistake by me,” Smith said. “I didn’t mean, contextually, to demean the movement and I understand why they took it that way. I’m in learning mode there.”

He had no personal opinion on the matter, he said, but is continuing to listen and learn.

UNC President Margaret Spellings said she and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt spoke last week about “the implications” for the statue as students ready to return to campus for the fall semester. The cost of securing the statue – $390,000 last year – was significant, Spellings said.

Spellings said Folt and the UNC trustees were working on a plan to keep students and property safe and find a way forward.

“What are the options ahead for this board or the legislature to consider about how to put that period in our history in the right kind of context and to move on from it in ways that we learn from it?” Spellings said.

But shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday, Smith returned to the board’s previous, hands-off approach to the issue. He released a written statement concluding there would be no further board action. Rather than petitioning the Historical Commission, Smith said the board would wait to hear from them.

“The UNC Board of Governors respects each of the varying opinions within the university community concerning this matter,” Smith said in the statement. “However, after consulting with legal counsel, neither UNC-Chapel Hill nor the UNC System have the legal authority to unilaterally relocate the Silent Sam statue. Thus, the board has no plans to take any action regarding the monument at this time, and we will await any guidance that the North Carolina Historical Commission may offer.”

Dennis summed up her remarks to the Board of Governors with a sentiment many alumni say they share as each and every arm of state and academic bureaucracy fails to make progress on the issue.

“We deserve better,” she said.