Quiet down on Silent Sam
There’s protesting for a cause that needs championing — and then there’s protesting for the sake of protesting. Earlier this month, a protest group calling itself the Real Silent Sam was engaging in the latter.
On Sept. 1, the group called attention to the statue in McCorkle Place depicting a Confederate soldier standing upright and carrying a rifle. The group held this protest with the stated goal of erecting a plaque beside the statue, explaining Silent Sam’s racially charged history.
While there’s no denying the racial undertones of the statue, a plaque would only serve to remind passersby of what they already know: that racism was once accepted.
And it would represent a feeble attempt at overriding a history that, despite its obvious faults, is deeply ingrained in the University and the state it serves. There is no better place than a university to show that one day’s conventional wisdom can evolve and be recognized for its flaws.
The statue was dedicated in 1913 by a Confederate veteran whose speech included praise for soldiers who helped preserve “the Anglo-Saxon race.” It was intended to celebrate the Civil War effort and Jim Crow era.
But there is nothing on the statue itself that could be called offensive.
There are no inflammatory images, no lewd or profane material, and many people who are unfamiliar with its history would be hard-pressed to identify it as a Confederate soldier at first glance.
The plaque would amount to an asterisk that could be added to any number of buildings and memorials on campus. Many University landmarks, from Spencer Hall to Saunders Hall, are named after Confederate sympathizers.
The racism practiced in their day was brutally inhumane and in violation of both human and constitutional rights. But it was also a practice that was not considered evil by their contemporaries. And it does not change the fact that they helped lay a foundation that exists to this day for the University.
Many of the commemorations inside Memorial Hall are to Confederate veterans who were also statesmen, philanthropists or educators.
Saunders Hall is named for William Saunders, a confederate officer and chief organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina after the war.
But Saunders was also secretary of state, published a hugely important trove of historical documents and was on the University’s Board of Trustees for 15 years.
Spencer Residence Hall is named after Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who was known both for her love of white supremacy and hatred of “carpetbaggers.” Spencer also avidly supported increased education across the state, especially for women.
And Aycock Residence Hall is named after Charles Brantley Aycock, widely heralded for his education reforms.
He also worked in his term as governor to disenfranchise black voters through literacy tests and poll taxes.
Not every building on campus is named after a proponent of racism, but the list does include quite a few.
It goes to show that sometimes what seems obvious to one generation can seem horrific and even unfathomable just a few generations later.
The University shouldn’t name a building after a contemporary white supremacist, but we can’t retroactively punish people for believing in the logic of the day.
It’s difficult to decipher which contemporary values will be intact a century from now. One can only hope, given recent events, that capital punishment and unequal rights for gay individuals will be seen a century from now — or sooner — as backwards.
Regardless, our history deserves to be seen for its glories and its faults — but not offended by plaques like the one Silent Sam’s protesters have in mind.
© 2011 DTH Publishing Corp.