Hundreds of protestors gathered at UNC’s McCorkle Place Sunday afternoon, as the ongoing fight over Silent Sam raged on.
It was originally meant to be a demonstration in support of Silent Sam, and about a hundred people gathered for that purpose – most of them driving in together from Graham, waving Confederate flags. But the counter-protestors, most of them students, outnumbered them three to one.
And while the pro-Confederate protestors were in high spirits, they were also frustrated by the counter-protest. (“We have a right to be heard,” keynote speaker H.K. Edgerton said repeatedly over the din.)
It was a peaceful demonstration all around: police were on hand to keep order, and the two sides were mostly separated from each other by a wide barricade around Silent Sam.
But the situation was tense nonetheless, because Sunday’s demonstration revolved around some of the most uncomfortable questions in American public discourse: our history of race relations, and how we present that history in society. (Counter-protestors shouted “Black lives matter”; the pro-Sam demonstrators shouted “All lives matter” in response.)
Sunday’s protest was launched by a Facebook group called “Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County.” (The same group held a similar rally in Hillsborough two months ago.) This rally was sparked by a series of vandalism incidents targeting Silent Sam, the statue on campus that was built in 1913 as a monument to Confederate soldiers.
The statue is controversial today, of course, because of its connection to the Confederacy and by extension slavery. And Silent Sam itself has its own checkered past: 1913 was in the middle of one of the worst periods for race relations in American history, and the dedication ceremony for the statue was also a celebration of white supremacy.
For those reasons and others, many say the statue ought to be removed.
“It will come down, eventually – and they know that, (and) that’s why they’re coming here,” said Leah Osae, a UNC student who organized Sunday’s counter-protest. “Basically what they are showing us is that they’re losing.”
But defenders of the statue, like Edgerton, say tearing it down would be akin to whitewashing history.
“We talk about how ISIL is destroying monuments and mosques, but now here we are in America with these folks tearing down monuments,” he said Sunday.
Of course aside from the vandalism, Silent Sam doesn’t appear to be in any actual jeopardy: earlier this year the General Assembly passed a law requiring state approval for any attempt to take down a historical monument.
So while Sunday’s demonstration was ostensibly a fight about Silent Sam, it was also – perhaps even especially – a fight about the history of race in America. Many of Silent Sam’s defenders said the statue is an important reminder of the ugly side of American history – but H.K. Edgerton, speaking amidst a sea of Confederate flags, insisted the history wasn’t ugly at all.
“These folks today talking about ‘black lives matter’ – who do they matter to?” he said. “The only place that black lives ever mattered was to the Christian white folks in the Southland of America.”
On the other side of McCorkle Place, counter-protestors were working to get out the opposing view. Kyle Reeves, a grad student at UNC, was passing out copies of W.E.B. DuBois’ seminal 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk” – 158 copies to be precise, to mark the 158 years it took UNC to admit its first African-American student.
“It’s an important book that still has themes that are relevant to the struggles that we see today for racial equity and racial justice,” he said. (It’s also available online.)
About 500 people in all were on McCorkle Place Sunday. Most UNC administrative leaders stayed away, though, sparking complaints among some of the counter-protestors (as well as at least one sign reading, “Where’s Carol?”).
More photos from Sunday’s demonstration:
Above: Counter-demonstrators gather ahead of the rally.
Above: competing takes on history and heritage.