Silence on Silent Sam at UNC: ‘Very public conversation’ promised but not happening

by WorldTribune Staff, March 5, 2019

Later this month, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors is expected to decide on what it plans to do with the Silent Sam Confederate monument that was toppled by protesters in August of last year.

In the run-up to the decision, UNC officials had pledged a “very public conversation” on the monument’s future. But the UNC Board of Governors “has not debated the issue openly, and a special board committee has met only once, in private,” according to a March 1 report by the Raleigh News & Observer.

The special committee met on Feb. 7. The meeting was not announced publicly and media outlets were not given notice, which is an apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law, according to Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association.

“You still have to provide notice, even if it’s not going to be an open meeting,” Martin said.

Related: Black defender of Confederate soldiers takes stand on downed statue, Aug. 23, 2018

The News & Observer noted that “The law allows boards to go into closed session in certain situations, such as discussing lawsuits or personnel matters. But meetings of public bodies still have to be convened in public.”

The toppling of the statue was accompanied by expressions of outrage from activists interviewed by national media groups. One activist not widely interviewed was H.K. Edgerton, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who drove from his home in Asheville, dressed in his uniform and spoke with students at the site.

Edgerton said the Silent Sam statue, which had stood on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus for 105 years, and the Confederate flag are not race related.

“It’s something that should be embraced by black folks,” he said. “Not equated as being an evil symbol because it’s not.”

UNC system board chairman, Harry Smith, said the subcommittee didn’t have a quorum when it met, but he pledged that future meetings would be public.

“Quite frankly I wasn’t even aware of the fact that we didn’t notice it,” Smith told the News & Observer. “I will tell you that it should be. We shouldn’t have a problem with that. I mean, it’s a very public conversation.”

The committee’s chairman, Jim Holmes, said the meeting was informal, lasting about an hour or hour and a half. The five Board of Governors members on the special board committee talked about the issue with several UNC-Chapel Hill trustee members, he said.

“We’re just trying to figure out where we’re going,” said Holmes. “We met with folks from Chapel Hill and our committee, and we just had a level-setting dialogue. We reviewed options and kind of set a baseline.”

The News & Observer noted that “Neither Smith nor Holmes was specific about what was discussed or what options are now on the table.”

In December, a recommendation from the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees for a new history and education center to be built on campus at an estimated cost of $5.3 million was rejected by the university system’s Board of Governors, and the question was referred back to the trustees with a deadline of March 15. The monument would have been housed in the center.

On Jan. 14, the pedestal base and inscription plaques were removed from the site where Silent Sam stood. The base and plaques were removed following a letter that day from UNC Chancellor Carol Folt who justified the removal on grounds of public safety. Folt also announced her resignation in the letter.

The future of the Confederate statue, which is currently in storage, on the Chapel Hill campus has dominated conversations at the university for months.

In 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Cultural History Artifact Management and Patriotism Act of 2015, which states that “An object of remembrance [defined as “monument, memorial, or work of art”] located on public property may not be permanently removed.”

The law does allow an object to be permanently relocated, provided that it is “relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access, …within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.” Approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission is required.

After the monument was toppled, at least nine members of the UNC Board of Governors said it should be put in its original spot to comply with the law, according to emails released to the News & Observer through a public records request.

Board member Marty Kotis suggested erecting a fence around the reinstalled statue, as well as traffic devices that would keep vehicles out of the area. Kotis proposed signs that would give the proper context to the statue and an additional monument that would honor an African American in university history, the News & Observer report said.

Alex Mitchell, a Durham developer, said Kotis’ plan had merit, adding, “The fact is that it must go back up and it’s all about how we do it.”

Holmes said that “Leadership is often difficult and most certainly is not a popularity contest … we should lead in explaining the entirety of this monument and also set the tone that we are a society of law and order and it’s not alright to resort to violence when you do not get your desired result on your time frame.”

The board’s student member, Betty Njaramba of N.C. Central University, tried to persuade the members that the statue shouldn’t be re-erected.

“While I agree wholeheartedly that we are a nation of laws and cannot allow our system to be defined by lawlessness, this statue symbolizes a time when the law politicized the existence of people who look like myself and 45,000+ students within our system,” emailed Njaramba. “I believe the restoration of this statue, regardless of our intent, will be viewed as the condoning of what this statue represents.”

A UNC-Chapel Hill trustee, Dwight Stone, emailed one Board of Governors member, Michael Williford, to say returning Silent Sam to campus was a very bad idea.

“Mike, putting the statue back up will make us ground zero for every nut job organization on both sides of the issue,” Stone wrote. “There will be no way to guarantee safety and I promise you whatever is put back up is going to be the target of every one of these groups to destroy. Not only will it cost up [to] a million dollars a year of taxpayer money to try to protect it, but we will never be successful doing so without armed guards standing around it 24/7. What kind of visual signal does that send to every parent or potential parent of every student at UNC.”

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