Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Columbine shooters were members of a group called the Trench Coat Mafia. They were only associated with the group, not members themselves.
On many Saturday mornings in middle school, I can remember passing by Silent Sam on my way to join dozens of other Black kids to learn about math and science and college life at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). I never thought much of him because already at 11 years old it was unremarkable to see white men with guns and hard stares in public. In school they taught us that those white men who patrolled our hallways, our streets, and stood in stone at our state parks and state legislature were synonymous with safety and honor.
Even after Columbine, the first mass shooting of my high school memory, they taught us to trust the white men with guns who were coming more often to campus to protect us. They taught us to ignore the silly white boys—who wanted to be those white men with guns—when they drove pickup trucks with Confederate flags to school, when they threatened to do us just like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did those students in Colorado. Dylan and Eric were associated with members of a Confederate-flag wearing group called the Trench Coat Mafia. They told a Black boy named Isaiah Sholes that they hated niggers, just before shooting him dead in the school library.
We were meant to believe white men with guns—in skin or metal or stone—meant nothing, or at least meant no harm to our Black selves when their presence is always meant to remind us of our place—wherever we are present.
Silent Sam terrorizes precisely through this gaslighting, the repetitive conviction that it is not only safe, but also worthy of safekeeping. The mounting opposition to the statue is met simultaneously by the regular appearance of white neo-confederates on campus, who threaten student organizers online and in person, and by harried white liberal administrators assuring us all that it is our opposition to white supremacy, rather than white supremacy itself, that is the true danger. These dual responses are complementary commitments to maintaining white power, apparently at any cost.
Silent Sam represents not only the swift and mundane violence of armed and overcompensating mostly white men from right-wing terrorist groups and police departments, but also the slow and smiling violence of many mostly white administrators and faculty at white schools across this country —who place an economic and social chokehold on the parameters of our political and intellectual existence on campus as they titillate themselves publicly with proclamations of diversity and inclusion.
We are not meant to connect the swift violence to the slow violence, but they are of course two sides of the same face. And we are constantly in a most sinister and traumatizing game of whack-a-mole, calculating which face we must beat back at what time to do the real work we came to do—educating, learning, and building.
While middle school-me was visiting UNC in the mid-1990s, India Williams, UNC Class of 1998 and the Black Student Movement (BSM) were mostly whacking at slower violence while they fought for the free standing Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center on campus, and fought against political ideologies that reinforced an already hostile work and study environment.
“Silent Sam has always been a thing, but it wasn’t our focal point,” she said in a phone interview. “We were thinking about it, but we had more pressing things at that particular moment…the university approved funds for a student group to bring Ward Connerly to campus…to speak against affirmative action, which benefited us. There was a Black Chapel Hill Police officer…and the Chapel Hill Police Department wrongfully terminated him behind an act that we thought was pure racism, and so we helped to rally to get his job back…the housekeepers’ [worker’s rights] situation was still not done.”
Williams became BSM president in 1997, during the 30th anniversary of the original Black Student Movement. Under her leadership, the student organization honored the occasion by crafting 23 political demands of the UNC administration. Unsurprisingly, several of the demands were taken directly from the original BSM list because they had been unfulfilled for 30 years. At least one of those demands was to rename university buildings that honored white supremacists.
“So we’ve been fighting this fight for so long. It’s not like all of a sudden, students are realizing buildings and monuments on campus were named after people who remind us all the time of this horrible portion of history and were a very integral part of that history, Williams said. “[W]e were fighting that fight. And before us, [the original BSM] were fighting that fight.”
I left North Carolina after high school in 2002, and spent the next several years learning to play whack-a-mole up North, at Vassar College in New York, and again at Harvard Law School in Massachusetts. The game was especially aggressive and tiresome there because both white schools clung almost hysterically to the lie that they were more enlightened, more progressive, than their Southern brethren. They clung to this even after white students attacked the Black cultural center at Vassar using the oldest tradition of anti-Black caricature; even more so after one of Harvard’s best and brightest made the same pseudoscience arguments about Black intellectual inferiority to whites as Thomas Jefferson in 18th century Virginia.
“We are constantly in a most tiresome and traumatizing game of whack-a-mole, calculating which face we must beat back at what time to do the real work we came to do—educating, learning, and building.”
I moved back to North Carolina after a decade. Silent Sam was still there, armed and staring.
The difference this time was that the political moment—the mass resurgence of swift white supremacist violence in backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency—prompted the political momentum necessary to start removing symbols of white supremacy from every corner of the nation, from New Orleans to New Haven to Chicago to Los Angeles. As Donald Trump bulldozed his way towards the White House by saying all the things white people across the country desperately want to believe about themselves and their place in the world, another white boy with a gun and the same Confederate commitments sat for an hour in Bible study at a Black church in Charleston, and then decided to murder nine of the parishioners, claiming they were trying to take power away from his people, in his country. Two years later, a white freedom fighter named Heather Heyer was murdered for rallying against white supremacy in Charlottesville, VA.
When Bree Newsome seized the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol in 2015, it was perhaps the only non-violent response that was appropriate.
Destroying the symbols of our destruction isn’t the same as our salvation, but it’s something.
And sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what it is.
“Destroying the symbols of our destruction isn’t the same as our salvation, but it’s something. And sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what it is.”
When I came back to North Carolina in 2012, it was to start a doctoral program at Duke University in Durham, another white institution 10 miles from UNC. For 12 semesters (and still today) the familiar faces of violence popped up and up around campus—the noose, the slurs, the physical harassment, the casual hostility. The administration that protected itself while Black and brown and queer students had to protect themselves.
A statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was carved into the stone walls of Duke Chapel, the iconic building designed by Black architect Julian Abele. Duke removed the statue of Lee only after it was literally defaced and posed a threat to public safety. After another year of protest, the university decided to rename a building that was named after Julian Carr, one of the most powerful white supremacists in North Carolina history—and the man who spoke at the dedication of Silent Sam over a century ago.
Around the time Robert E. Lee came down at Duke, in 2017, I met Omololu Babatunde, UNC Class of 2015, likely at one of the many rallies against Silent Sam. Like Williams 20 years before her, she spent much of her career at UNC beating back the same old faces.
“[Around 2014] the Board of Governors announced that it had a major funding shortfall, and was starting to defund programs, the majority of them having to do with social justice, people of color, marginalized peoples,” Babatunde said. “And I had to watch people of color in these programs, like the [Sonja Haynes] Stone Center [for Black Culture and History], essentially go on trial to defend their programs to a room full of largely white men.”
In addition to these slow violence tactics, the threats of swift violence were mounting in response to the resistance to Silent Sam. The neo-confederates took their posts around the statue and on edge of campus and aired their threats on social media. One of the frequent offenders, Jack Corbin, has been connected to Robert Bowers, the alleged shooter in the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October.
Babatunde told me she recalls reading the transcription of Carr’s dedication speech to Silent Sam in 1913, in which he bragged about horse-whipping “a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” after the Civil War Battle of Appomattox. Babatunde adopted the name “Negro Wench” in solidarity with the nameless Black woman, and joined the Real Silent Sam Coalition, a group of UNC students and alumni whose aim was to remove Silent Sam from campus, but who also fought many more battles against various forms of white supremacy on campus. One of its major accomplishments was renaming a building now alternately called [Zora Neale] Hurston or Carolina Hall, which was previously named after William Saunders, a Confederate veteran and member of the Ku Klux Klan who served on the UNC Board of Trustees.
“The whole campus is structured to normalize violence in monuments and big buildings. Silent Sam Coalition tried to target places to show: How do we use the built environment to help us know where we are? How do we actually activate the landscape?,” Babatunde said.
“The whole campus is structured to normalize violence in monuments and big buildings. Silent Sam Coalition tried to target places to show: How do we use the built environment to help us know where we are? How do we actually activate the landscape?”
When I spoke with Taylor Webber-Fields, another UNC ‘15 student who I met while protesting, said she got involved with the Real Silent Sam Coalition pretty much immediately after seeing Silent Sam on a campus tour when she transferred to UNC from Eastern Carolina University.
“I was pissed,” she said. “I understood UNC as this really progressive and esteemed institution...I was like—duped again! When Blanche [Brown, UNC ‘15] asked if I was in [for the Real Silent Sam Coalition], I said, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it.’ I didn’t want any other Black person to come on the campus and not know the deal.”
I remember attending one of the Real Silent Sam rallies at UNC’s South Building in fall 2014, one of my first visits back to the campus since I left North Carolina in 2002. Hundreds of students gathered and listened to Black and brown and queer students talk about their experiences of fear and hostility on the campus. Like me, many of them had just spent that summer processing the swift violence of the police murders of Walter Scott in Charleston and Mike Brown in Ferguson.
Babatunde, Webber-Fields and many other Black students, like Tasia Harris, returned to campus that first semester of their senior year looking for a way to process that trauma. Harris told me over the phone that people on campus acted like nothing happened, and there was nothing formal planned by the university to address it or any other police murders of Black people.
“We were really encountering the disposability of Black folks,” Babatunde said. “At the same time we were battling against this idea that we’re different [as Black elite college students] than the people uprising in Ferguson. Anti-blackness is everywhere. We have to be clear and vigilant about that. Can’t be hoodwinked into this fallacy.”
Seeing the connection between the school’s silence and its commitment to maintaining structures and symbols of white supremacy, they decided to use the Real Silent Sam Coalition to draw attention to those various representations across campus.
By the time Babatunde and her comrades graduated in Spring 2015, the campaign to take down Silent Sam had become a broad-based local movement that spread beyond UNC’s students and alumni. From 2015 until the statue was toppled in August 2018, I could scarcely recall passing by Silent Sam without seeing protest signs posted on the stone pedestal, protesters and neo-confederates circling the statue. I saw signs to take down Silent Sam posted in Chapel Hill and in Durham. I signed petitions. I attended rallies whenever I could.
The night protestors toppled Silent Sam from his pedestal was the night before the first day of fall classes, the night before my first semester employed by UNC. I took a position in their Geography department because I thought I could find a way to replicate for someone else the groundwork that was done for me there as a middle schooler.
I did not witness the toppling that night, but when I walked to my new office in Hurston/Carolina Hall the next morning, there was a sign posted on the door of the building—“Sam did fall. Welcome Back to Hurston Hall.” I wanted to feel relieved—some part of me does. But the part of me that knows better grieves for what generations endured to get to this point, and for what I and so many others know is to come, like the fight against the UNC Board of Trustees’ most recent (and rejected) proposal to build a $5.3M safehouse for Silent Sam’s metal carcass. I grieve for how consuming this fight is in every space, how little of ourselves we sometimes reserve for ourselves and our own communities, how the boldest of us, like UNC Ph.D student Maya Little, have to worry about threats to their lives as they work to finish school. How the administration seems wholly unconcerned with our collective safety.
“Carolina is going to co-opt that story as their story,” Webber-Fields tells me over the phone, when I ask her what she thinks about Silent Sam’s toppling. “A story of triumph over history. It’s going to come out that they were somehow supportive of it…I would encourage folks to record your history. UNC will have a whole other story, a whole other spin.”
I know she’s right. And I also know that this particular fight is very far from over. I spoke with UNC Geography professor Altha Cravey—who has been at UNC since 1994—and she told me her biggest worry right now is the growing threat of violence on campus.
“What makes me anxious is the policing and the police brutality, the willingness of [UNC Chancellor Carol] Folt and the administration to use brute force against students,” she said. “I also feel that we’re very close to having deaths on this campus and other sorts of harm to students and others on this campus. That’s what really scares me.”
“What makes me anxious is the policing and the police brutality, the willingness of [UNC Chancellor Carol] Folt and the administration to use brute force against students,” she said.
But she is, as I am, resolute on one thing.
“If [Silent Sam] goes back up, it’s coming down again.”