Conflicting signals about the future of the Confederate monument on the UNC – Chapel Hill campus came from the UNC System Board of Governors meeting on Friday.
Friday marked the first meeting of the board under the leadership of newly elected chair Harry Smith. And while there was new leadership, there was a familiar issue facing the board: Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus.
Smith initially said that he expected the board would discuss the future of the monument and potentially, based on the result of that discussion, bring a petition to the state Historical Commission, the designated body with the authority to order the movement or removal of an “object of remembrance,” according to a 2015 law passed by the state’s Republican-led General Assembly.
“I would expect that we will have a conversation at the board with the president and follow a process,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, what I want to make sure is that we’re not ignoring it. And so that we’re just not having public comment sessions and then we’re moving on.”
Smith said doing what the board felt was “right” was going to be the priority.
“I expect that we will have a robust conversation with the board,” Smith said, “and then the board will be the board.”
Smith was speaking to reporters after the board meeting wrapped up. The day had started with a public comment session, as all system board meetings do. Throughout the nearly hour-long public comment session, speakers repeated concerns about what atmosphere the monument creates on campus.
Nicho Stevens said he is a rising senior in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC – Chapel Hill. Stevens, who is biracial, said two other students on Franklin Street recently called him and two friends the n-word.
“I was paralyzed: shock, anger, rage,” Stevens said. “Imagine being called that by someone who is supposed to be your fellow Tar Heel.”
Stevens said he still feels angry when he is walking by that site.
“And then I walk another half-mile and see Silent Sam,” Stevens said, “proudly representing the Confederacy, who started an entire war based on keeping people like me enslaved.”
Nancy White is Stevens’ mother. She said the statue creates a hostile environment.
“As of today,” White said, “UNC is not living out its own mission statement. Enhancing access to learning does not include a symbol of white supremacy that intimidates black students and actually hinders their learning.”
But after hearing from the speakers during the public comment session and saying he expected a conversation to be had at the board level about the future of Silent Sam, a “clarifying statement” was issued shortly before 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Smith said in that statement that, after consulting with legal counsel, neither the system nor the Chapel Hill campus had the authority to act on the statue.
“Thus, the board has no plans to take any action regarding the monument at this time, and we will await any guidance that the North Carolina Historical Commission may offer.”
That state commission is currently weighing a request from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper to move three Confederate monuments from the old Capitol grounds. The commission held a public comment session on the topic earlier this year. The commission was scheduled to meet and make a decision this spring. But the commission has not scheduled a meeting to review the proposal.