A Place for Silent Sam

Forty feet tall, dulled from age, the statue of a uniformed young man strides forward from his stone plinth. His face is resolute. He carries a rifle held with two hands, at the ready, though he carries no ammunition box on his belt. In brass relief on his granite base, the same young man sits with a book open in his hands. A tall, robed woman bearing a sword lays a hand on his shoulder. A book lies discarded at his feet as he turns his face to meet her gaze.

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Silent Sam. “Confederate Monument, 1913.” Photo credit: North Carolina Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.

The Confederate soldier monument, known as Silent Sam, occupies a prominent location at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Facing north, it commands a view of the center of Chapel Hill, with the University’s McCorkle Place at its back. Both an entryway and a center, McCorkle Place is the soul of the University, rimmed by its oldest buildings and home to the ‘Old Well,’ the iconic visual symbol of Carolina. Unsurprisingly, McCorkle Place is also the epicenter of a decades-long conflict over the memorialization of the Confederacy within a modern University. The debate over Silent Sam unveils the precarious position of a University built by slaves for the sons of white slaveholders, which today strives to realize the values of diversity and inclusion.

For those who support keeping Silent Sam in place, he represents the sacrifice of 321 Carolina students who died in the Confederate armies. For those who support removing the memorial, he is a totem to white supremacy and physical proof of the University’s ongoing marginalization of students of color. As a planner, I firmly believe that as long as the discussion centers solely on symbolism and intent, it will remain unresolved. As anyone who has recently attended a heated public meeting can attest, arguments that arise from conflicting narratives do not have readily available solutions. One cannot easily bridge the gap between the belief that the statue is racist and the belief that the statue is noble. Our beliefs are ours alone.

As planners, we are tasked with the delicate business of divorcing the debate from individual views toward a communal vision, introducing the material aspects of the problem to the debate, and hopefully finding common ground among a diverse set of constituents in the process.

As a planner and as a member of the UNC community, I believe that if we examine the University’s history, its values, and the relationship between its built environment and its social environment, we should advocate for the relocation of the statue. Many say that removing the monument from McCorkle Place would be tantamount to forgetting our history. I disagree. We both forget our history and deny the realities of our present by keeping the statue as it is. Silent Sam may be without ammunition, but he is still armed. The time has long since arrived for Silent Sam to move from the heart of campus to a more appropriate location.

To move forward, we first must understand our history. Silent Sam was a gift to the University of North Carolina from the United Daughters of the Confederacy and installed in 1913. Unlike most Confederate memorials erected shortly after the Civil War, the statue does not mark a cemetery or a battle site. Instead, Silent Sam is an example of a “lost cause” monument. Built between 1895 and 1935, these memorials elevate the Confederate soldier as the model of citizenship and frame the conflict in terms of states’ rights, not slavery. The placement of Silent Sam at the center of campus is intentional. Lost cause monuments were erected in front of courthouses and by busy thoroughfares as a means to enshrine a positive narrative about the Confederacy within the public life of the South.¹ Amidst a society experiencing the upheaval of emancipation and reconstruction, the lost cause narrative reassured whites by supplanting the dishonor of defeat with a romanticized image of the Confederacy in which brave young men fought and died against a tyrannical Northern aggressor with superior resources. These monuments served to frame the tremendous casualties of the war as a sort of martyrdom: a noble sacrifice cleansed from complicity in slavery and upheld as an example of civic virtue.

Today, Silent Sam remains a physical monument in a public space. Both the product of our social world and the setting of public life, public spaces create narratives of our history and our aspirations. Monuments, in particular, imbue space with meaning, transmitting messages from generations past about how to live well and about what values to uphold. This is exactly what Silent Sam does: it tells a story about the past and evangelizes the values contained within that narrative. While it is easy to see public space as static, our perceptions belie the truth that we experience these spaces anew with each visitation. If the monument is a message from the past, it is one continually translated and reimagined by a community of passers-by. The question for members of the University, therefore, is not solely about what Silent Sam meant in the past. It requires that we connect the dots between the social environment and the built environment in the present day.

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“Festivities Surrounding Confederate Monument’s Unveiling.” Photo credit: North Carolina Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.

I see that connection between past and present very clearly in how the lost cause narrative is threaded throughout today’s debate over Silent Sam. Recent letters to the editor published in The Daily Tar Heel defend the statue in terms that echo this narrative, describing the monument as “a reminder of the willingness of [Confederate soldiers] to sacrifice their lives for their community, society and families and [sic] their courage, tenacity and fortitude.”² Another letter supposes that removing the memorial negates “all who had fought and died in vain and the civilian lives of Southern women that were raped by the Union soldiers that pillaged, stole and burned anything that they could not steal.”³  I do not deny the bravery of Confederate soldiers or the atrocities committed during the course of the Civil War. The problem lies within the insidious nature of the lost cause narrative, which cloaks a project of historical revisionism in the disguise of honoring the dead.

Whatever is done with Silent Sam will never right the wrongs of slavery and the systematic discrimination of the Jim Crow South. But to say that we must leave things as they are denies the agency we have as a community of the present. What planners bring to this debate is the knowledge of how we shape our environment, both its physical and social attributes. The Carolina community must ask itself what kind of environment we wish to inhabit, and how we want to remember our shared, fraught history.

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Silent Sam watches as counter-protestors greet Confederate rally protestors in October, 2015. Photo credit: Libbie Weimer

We have a place to start to answer the first question. The University’s Statement on Diversity states that “the University promotes intellectual growth and derives the educational benefits of diversity by creating opportunities for intense dialogue and rigorous analysis and by fostering mutually beneficial interactions among members of the community.”4 The diversity statement encompasses our core values and presents a place of common ground from which to begin the work of shaping our environment and remembering our history.

As a planner, I believe that Sam should be moved not simply because he represented the “lost cause” to his builders, but because of the connections between public space, public memory and shared history. I believe that as long as monuments to the lost cause remain at the heart of our campus, the lost cause narrative remains in the heart of our community. This narrative is antithetical to our values because it denies the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause. In doing this, it both subverts a rigorous analysis of the past and undermines mutually beneficial interactions among the diverse members of our community. As a community of the present, we must confront the past with clear eyes.

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“Silent Sam blindfolded by Confederate battle flag.” Photo credit: Bradley Sacks, The Daily Tar Heel (September 2015).

The debate over Silent Sam does not happen in a vacuum. In Fall, 2015, students at the University of Texas at Austin successfully petitioned to move a statue of Jefferson Davis from a public space on campus into the Briscoe Center for American History. Closer to home, students at Carolina succeeded last year in renaming a building dedicated to William Saunders, a prominent statesman and leader of the Ku Klux Klan. In both instances, pressure from students quickly led to change. Unlike William Saunders or Jefferson Davis, however, Silent Sam remains firmly in place.

I believe that the reason why we should move Silent Sam goes a step beyond the seduction of the lost cause narrative. Silent Sam evokes a wholly different and much more powerful response than Jefferson Davis or William Saunders. It is entirely possible to reject the actions and values of historical figures without considering one’s own actions and values. But Silent Sam is not a historical figure. Silent Sam is a student of the University. For this reason, he is a particularly potent symbol, both in eyes of the white men and women who see the image of their ancestors and of themselves, and in the eyes of the people of color who see him as their oppressor. It is one thing to call into question the motives of named elites of the day, and another altogether to call into question the motives of the everyday people of the past. To defend Sam as not racist today is to defend oneself as not racist today. Sam embodies a myth of white innocence in the past and he also embodies a myth of white innocence today.

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Silent Sam circa April 7th, 1968. Photo credit: Hugh Morton Photographic Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.

For this reason, Silent Sam is not only a historical controversy, but also an uncomfortable examination of today’s academic environment and today’s student body. The discomfort around acknowledging white supremacy tacitly fuels the debate. More than the continuance of the lost cause narrative, this is why the University should remove the statue. Carolina’s trend of downplaying and denying the damage of white supremacy in the past and today must end. The University must move the conversation from a childish posture of denial to a real conversation about race, a conversation that organized students such as the Real Silent Sam Coalition are already having. This conversation is fundamental to transforming the University from an institution designed for white men to an institution for students of all races, ethnicities, religions, and genders.

The road toward realizing the goals of diversity and inclusion is a long and winding path. It is the difficult and uncomfortable path. Removing Silent Sam is a difficult decision that would signal the University’s commitment to this path. I believe that Carolina should take a page from the University of Texas’ book and relocate Silent Sam to a more appropriate location. For Jefferson Davis, a history center is an ideal location, where a historical figure can be put within the context of the events of the time. For Silent Sam, the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is my preferred option. The cemetery includes remains of Confederate soldiers who were buried there during the Civil War. Removing the monument from a prominent public space and placing it in a cemetery among Confederate dead affirms the sacrifice of the 321. The lost cause narrative does not belong at the heart of our institution. Let’s populate our sacred ground with monuments that truly speak to our principles, such as the Old Well. The time has come for Sam to be laid to rest.


1. Thomas J. Brown, interviewed by Frank Stasio, “Flags, Soldier Statues and Civil War Memory,” WUNC, an affiliate of National Public Radio, (12 November 2015), http://wunc.org/post/flags-soldier-statues-and-civil-war-memory#stream/0.

2. Dr. Edith Bernosky, “Letter: Silent Sam represents sacrifice, not hate,” The Daily Tar Heel, (10 November 2015), http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2015/11/letter-silent-sam-represents-sacrifice-not-hate.

3. Danny Knowles, “Letter: Remove all war memorials or none,” The Daily Tar Heel, (24 August 2015), http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2015/08/letter-remove-all-war-memorials-or-none.

4. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Division of Workforce Strategy, Equity & Engagement. “Core Diversity Values of the University” http://diversity.unc.edu/our-commitment/carolinavalues/

Libbie Weimer is a current master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-CH. She is interested in the connections between environmental justice and energy policy, and is working on a master’s project about coal ash in North Carolina.