Silent Sam has something to say

Published 10:51 am Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Of the students and alumni of the University of North Carolina, about 1,800 entered the army. The University had in the service one lieutenant-general, four major-generals, 13 brigadier-generals, 71 colonels, 30 lieutenant-colonels, 65 majors, 46 adjutants, 71 surgeons, 254 captains, 161 lieutenants, 38 non-commissioned officers and about 1000 privates.

These weren’t veterans of the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, or any of the conflicts in the Middle East. Instead, it was the army of the Confederacy: 1860-1865. Those numbers represented 40 percent of the entire university enrollment at that time.

These men, and those numbers cited, were saluted in a speech by Julian Carr in 1913 at the unveiling of a statue to Confederate dead on what is the upper quad at UNC-Chapel Hill.

That same statue Carr referred to during his fiery dedication speech was covered in a veil again on a stormy Monday night, back on Aug. 20; only this time it was being ripped from its marble pedestal by protestors, and later ignominiously hauled away in a dump truck.

I have a bit of a personal history with that bronze monument sculpted by John Wilson at the turn of the 20th century and fifty years later nicknamed, “Silent Sam.” I used to live across from the quad while an undergraduate at UNC and I saw him from my window every day; when I first stepped on campus every morning, Sam greeted me.

Even in those awakening protest years of the 60’s and early 70’s, and especially now with recent events in Charleston and Charlottesville prompting a national controversy over the appropriateness of displaying Confederate symbols, Sam and other monuments of that sort have repeatedly been targeted with protests and vandalized, covered, and in some cases, even removed.

Just a week after Sam was toppled, Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington attorney whom I know well, also a former member of the General Assembly and UNC’s Board of Governors member, released a statement announcing the statue would be reinstated on campus in the next 90 days, citing a North Carolina statute.

However, that same statute says Silent Sam may be exempt, if it is deemed a threat to public safety. UNC later disagreed and cited a 2015 law forbidding the removal of public monuments without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Society.

Monuments, a UNC-Charlotte history professor wrote, reflect the generation that erected them. In the case of Silent Sam that would be an era in state history which reflected the Jim Crow generation that celebrated white supremacy as Carr did.

Our new generation of Southerners – both black and white – sees the statue as something different. They’re saying that this does not represent us.


Chapel Hill, like much of the South, has remolded itself. It’s now more diversified, inclusive, and accepting of all people.

Maybe with Silent Sam coming down, it’s opened a chance for us all to do something a bronze statue frozen in time can’t do: speak up; a chance to create dialogue about progress and maybe even be open to placing something else on that sacred space on the quad. After all, compensatory laws of physics say if you remove something, then something has to replace it. For right now, that something is just air.

Let’s look at the options: we can do away with Sam and other Confederate symbols, we can preserve them without question, or we could recast what they mean to us in the 21st century. In other words, we may not need to eliminate or relocate these symbols, but rather, redefine what they mean to us and what they’ll mean to generations ahead to learn from them.

Or a simpler solution a friend and fellow UNC alum suggested: just put up a statue of Dean Smith.

Well said, Sam, well said.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.