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Silent Sam should come down, and UNC has a perfect replacement

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The statue representing Confederate soldiers who were UNC students is, like other Confederate monuments, a center of controversy. If, or when, he comes down, the space he vacates doesn’t need to remain empty.

Rally Protesting UNC's Confederate Era Monument 'Silent Sam' Held On Campus Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Let’s get a few things out of the way before we sink our teeth into this very sensitive issue. My opinions are my own, and in no way are wholly representative of Tar Heel Blog or my fellow contributors. I have lived in North Carolina my entire life, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014, and have a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University. So I hope I’m qualified enough to speak about this topic.

Let’s also get some facts out there. Silent Sam—which for the uninformed is a statue on UNC’s campus proper that memorializes UNC students who fought for the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War—was erected in 1913 by a group of alumni from the University as well as the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC played a large role in the fact that the vast majority Confederate monuments actually were erected in the pre-WWI years of 1906-1913 and not immediately following the war. To better visualize it, the Southern Poverty Law Center provides a very useful chart.

That span of time coincides with a period that many American historians refer to as the “nadir of American race relations.” You may also know it as the era of Jim Crow, an era where the United States Supreme Court established in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson that separate was equal and that segregation based on race was constitutional. It was also an era where, in 1898, fifteen years before Silent Sam was erected and 165 miles down east on what’s now Interstate 40, white supremacists in Wilmington drove thousands of African-Americans out of the city because they believed Reconstruction government had become too black.

Even if we remove all of that context and look at just the statue itself, well, don’t take it from me:

The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God. I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers.

This isn’t Civil War rhetoric, even though the speaker lauds the purity of the “Anglo Saxon” race in the South and brags about assaulting a black woman without consequence. These words were spoken the day Silent Sam was unveiled in 1913 by Julian S. Carr, a graduate of UNC and Confederate war veteran. Around forty years later, UNC admitted its first black undergraduates. Flashing even further forward to the present day, UNC’s class of 2020 is 11% African-American (and 71% white).

Rally Protesting UNC's Confederate Era Monument 'Silent Sam' Held On Campus Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Why in the world am I talking about this on a sports blog? Well, it’s clear that Silent Sam’s days are numbered. As disappointing a reality as it is, his mere presence on campus is a safety hazard in a post-Charlottesville America. Hate groups who believe in 2017 the same things Julian S. Carr believed in 1913 can potentially rally at the statue that stands for what they stand for, which endangers students. Sam is also a safety hazard to himself; I’m sure neither the University nor the state of North Carolina want to risk him being vandalized in any way. Heck, it wouldn’t even be the first time.

It’s clear from the facts that Silent Sam’s historical value does not outweigh the reality that he, like so many other monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers, represents the ideology at the heart of the Confederacy, founded on several principles including but not limited to the fact that no “law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed,” per none other than the Confederate States Constitution.

Part of the reason Silent Sam is such a lightning rod for controversy is the fact that he’s so visible on campus. He’s visible when walking or driving down Franklin Street, is squarely in the center of the north quad, and is almost a guaranteed stop for anyone giving a tour of the University—I know this because I used to give tours for the University. So instead of leaving his space vacant if, or when, he does move to a museum where people can elect to see him instead of being confronted with his reality when walking from class to class, I have an idea. Well, I should give credit where credit is due:

See! Sports got brought into it eventually! But ever since seeing this tweet in my feed I’ve been thinking about how good an idea that is. Dean Smith is probably the most revered man to ever walk on UNC’s campus, and currently the only monument to his legacy in Chapel Hill is the Dean E. Smith Center, the “Dean Dome,” which opened with his name in 1986, when he was still coaching in Chapel Hill! In fact, and this is the main potential roadblock in memorializing him in this way, he didn’t even want the Dean Dome to be named after him. Here’s an excerpt from the fantastic book Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam:

He was not pleased that when UNC built a new basketball arena, it named it after him. The Dean E. Smith Center, it was called, the Dean Dome in the vernacular. He went along with it only because he thought the university needed it, and the people behind the drive assured him that the drive might fail unless they used his name.

But the statue shouldn’t just represent his accomplishments coaching for the university. It’s about more than just his wins, his titles, and his years in Carolina both during and after his tenure as coach. It’s about what he did to try to bridge the racial divide in the South. Silent Sam was erected to represent a nation divided. Coach Smith wanted a nation united. Again, Halberstam tells it better than I can:

He [Smith] had also helped integrate a popular downtown Chapel Hill restaurant early in his career, at a time when his own job often seemed on the line and when integration was hardly fashionable. As early as 1961, Smith had tried to recruit Lou Hudson, a great player who had been unable to meet Carolina’s academic requirements and had gone to Minnesota and on to an exceptional pro career. Smith continued trying and eventually broke the barrier by successfully recruiting Charlie Scott in 1966. [...] Smith made Scott a member of the Carolina family from the start, taking him to church on his first visit—a white church, not a black one, as Scott had anticipated. When a fan at the University of South Carolina yelled cruel racial epithets at Scott, two Carolina assistants had to stop Smith from going into the stands.

Smith was not only a great coach but a champion of equal rights. And he practiced what he preached; anecdotal evidence for his support of African-Americans in and around Chapel Hill is not just limited to the basketball program. The first black mayor of Chapel Hill, Howard Lee, can credit Smith with helping him purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood in 1965, when Lee had just earned his Master’s from UNC. Lee became mayor in 1969, also becoming the first black mayor of any predominately white city in the South.

Aside from the fact that Coach Smith might have been uncomfortable gazing upon a statue of himself, it’s difficult to come up with any reasons why Smith wouldn’t be a much better fit in Silent Sam’s current post. And if that sticking point is severe enough, that’s fine. A monument to Charlie Scott would be a fine choice as well. Or to open things up outside the realm of sports, there’s also Floyd McKissick, the first black student to be admitted to UNC, who later went on to be the second leader of the Congress for Racial Equality.

These aren’t easy questions to answer nor are they easy discussions to have. But they are very important, especially for the students who call UNC home. Here are some of their words from this week’s protest, per Indyweek:

"Silent Sam is more protected than any student at this university," said one senior who took the megaphone earlier in the evening. " ... [UNC Chancellor Carol] Folt and the administration continue to prioritize wealthy alumni over students of color."

[Another UNC senior] said, in her experience, UNC Chapel Hill isn't as liberal as it appears. She's seen black students turned away from fraternity parties because they weren't athletes. "I feel like a lot of people don't understand the issue because they have the luxury of not having to think about it. Everyday I wake up, I'm black. Every night I go to sleep, I'm black. I don't have a choice. Showing up is difficult, but so is being black."

We should be heartened that these students have a platform to speak about their experiences and offer their perspectives. It’s only fair we listen, and it’s only fair to know the true history that Silent Sam represents. A monument to Coach Smith, or Scott, or McKissick, would celebrate all the great things about UNC without having to be marred by the cruel circumstances that defined America in the past.

And if anyone needs any ideas for a pose for Coach Smith’s statue, I’d like to offer the idea of him rolling up his sleeves as he prepares to go into the stands to defend someone he not only considered his player, but his family.