‘A slap in the face:’ UNC hears Confederate statue concerns

November 15, 2017

FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2017, file photo, police stand by a Confederate monument nicknamed "Silent Sam" at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. The university's board heard from more than 30 speakers who oppose the campus Confederate monument, Wednesday, Nov. 15, at a comment session during its bimonthly meeting. The statue of an anonymous rebel known as "Silent Sam" has been the site of demonstrations during a nationwide debate on Confederate monuments. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — A Confederate statue should be removed from its prominent place at North Carolina’s flagship public university, two dozen students, faculty members and alumni told trustees Wednesday, calling it a “slap in the face” to the diverse campus.

Nearly 30 speakers addressed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees during a two-hour comment session on the statue known as “Silent Sam,” which stands in a main quadrangle. Most opposed the anonymous rebel soldier dedicated in 1913, but two supporters of the monument called it an important memorial.

Among those opposing it was undergraduate student Miriam Madison, who said: “It’s a slap in the face when I see the statue.”

Madison told the mostly white and male board that the statue makes her feel devalued as a black woman, especially considering its dedication speech by a former Confederate soldier who talked about the “pleasing duty” of whipping a “negro wench” in Chapel Hill.

“Tell me what you stand for, and am I a ‘negro wench’ to you?” Madison asked the board, which did not take questions.

North Carolina, which ranks among the handful of Southern states with the most Confederate monuments, has been a focal point in the national debate over them following a deadly white nationalist protest in August in Virginia. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has called for removing Silent Sam and other rebel symbols on public land.

It’s not clear what the board could do. Chancellor Carol Folt has previously said state law prevents the school from removing the statue, while Cooper argues that the law would permit the statue to be moved as a safety threat. Some speakers urged the trustees to petition a state historical commission that’s studying several other Confederate monuments on the grounds of the state’s old Capitol.

Board Chair Haywood Cochrane opened the session by saying the trustees “care deeply” about campus safety and are committed to telling the “full and accurate story of our university’s history.” He said the public comment session was convened at Folt’s urging.

Folt ended the meeting by thanking the speakers, but didn’t say what the next steps could be.

“I know that it took a lot of courage for people to stand up here,” she said.

Two speakers supported the Confederate monument, while another argued that protests such as the one against Silent Sam threaten to drown out voices of those who disagree.

One Silent Sam supporter, who identified himself as UNC alumnus James Ward, acknowledged that there was “rampant racism” around the world when the statue was dedicated in 1913 but said it represents an important memorial.

“Most of us look at the statue today and see a memorial to our relatives, our blood kin,” said Ward, who is white. He added: “The statue should remain because it is a memorial to these sons of the university.”

Graduate student and protest organizer Maya Little said the statue symbolizes “the violent oppression of minorities.” She said it continues to pose a safety hazard and that demonstrators have been verbally threatened by some who think it should stay in place.

After the meeting, Little said she was encouraged so many people spoke out. Little, who is black, argues the university has options for moving the statue, such as the one proposed by Cooper.

“I think this university needed to hear from its students,” she said, noting that it’s taken several months for them to get such a forum. “It’s not given us many opportunities to speak.”


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