In the year since a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counterprotester was killed, there has been growing momentum to remove Confederate monuments across the country.
Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from Duke Chapel after it was damaged. The University of Texas – Austin removed three Confederate monuments. Those statues were removed in Durham and Austin in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam continues to stand on McCorkle Place fronting Franklin Street on the UNC – Chapel Hill campus. Silent Sam has been a flashpoint of protests for decades after it was erected in 1913, including major rallies at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
A large rally was held protesting Silent Sam on August 22, 2017, just after the Charlottesville rally and coinciding with the first day of the fall semester. UNC – Chapel Hill Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser stood on the outskirts of the protest, watching and speaking with students. Moeser said at the time that it was time for Silent Sam to come down, calling it “untenable.”
The situation in North Carolina was complicated by a 2015 law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly that limits the removal of “objects of remembrance.”
Thousands of pages of public records provided by UNC – Chapel Hill show the behind-the-scenes conversations and work done over the last year related to Silent Sam.
UNC administrators were working behind the scenes after the Charlottesville rally to prepare for the August 22 protest on the Chapel Hill campus.
UNC Chapel – Hill Chancellor Carol Folt forwarded a news story to UNC System President Margaret Spellings on August 21, 2017, regarding the removal underway at UT – Austin.
“Texans are smarter,” Spellings replied, as shown in public records of the email exchange.
Folt, Spellings and the chairs of the respective boards at the campus and system level then sent a letter to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper later that day to alert the governor to “significant safety and security threats at the UNC – Chapel Hill campus relating to the Silent Sam statue, and to seek your assistance as the chief executive of the State of North Carolina to address these urgent concerns.”
Cooper responded the same day.
“If our university leaders believe there is real risk to public safety, the law allows them to take immediate measures,” the governor wrote.
He was referencing a section of the law that allows a “building inspector[s] or similar officials” to take steps to avoid “threats to public safety.”
Spellings sent an after-the-fact message to the system’s Board of Governors detailing the correspondence with the governor.
“We question whether the legislature shares Governor Cooper’s interpretation of the statute,” Spellings wrote, “or whether the legislature intended to authorize unilateral action by an institution in the manner the governor suggests.”
Spellings was subsequently targeted by several members of the board for sending a letter to Cooper without their knowledge, with members calling it “wholly unacceptable.”
“Apparently we and everyone who works for us are idiots… ,” Spellings wrote to Folt on August 23, forwarding some of the criticism she had received from BOG members.
The UNC System Board of Governors made clear to the Chapel Hill campus that it did not agree with Cooper’s interpretation of the law.
“I can confirm that we do not believe that Chapel Hill can act unilaterally,” Lou Bissette, who was then chair of the system’s board, wrote in an August 24 email to the BOG. “Moreover, a recent analysis of the statute from the School of Government concludes that the statute is simply unclear.”
But there were some in the Chapel Hill administration who were pushing for more concrete action that could result in the removal of Silent Sam during the leadup to the rally.
Vice chancellor for student affairs Winston Crisp wrote during the drafting of a statement from university leadership that he believed “this is the wrong approach with potential catastrophic impacts for our students and community.”
Crisp added, “If we cannot publicly acknowledge the specific dynamics of the situation the University is in, vis a vis the Governor and Legislature, the University will appear to be indifferent to the health and safety of the campus community.
“To that end, I believe absolutely that we should move towards taking that statue down immediately.”
Acknowledging that the immediate removal of the statue was unlikely, Crisp wrote that the university should thank the governor for his counsel and point out that the governor’s advice cites a portion of the law regarding disrepair – “which is not at play here.”
Crisp also alleges that “we have been told that the University will face consequences from the legislature if we proceed under this imperfect authority.”
Finally, Crisp says that the university should assure the campus community that officials are “continuing to determine next steps to support the statue’s removal.”
Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC -Chapel Hill, also drafted a message to the North Carolina Historical Commission, the state body with the authority under the 2015 law to hear requests for moving an object of remembrance, asking the commission to “take the actions necessary to initiate the removal of Silent Sam from our campus.”
Guskiewicz never submitted the letter to the commission, campus officials said in an email on Thursday when asked for a comment for this story.
“Dean Guskiewicz opted not to send it because he learned that the Board of Trustees and Chancellor were going to address the topic at an upcoming Board of Trustees meeting. In lieu of that, Dean Guskiewicz sent a letter on Sept. 30 to Chancellor Folt and Chair Haywood Cochrane.”
Records show Guskiewicz wrote on September 30, “many of our faculty and students believe we should reconsider the place of memorials such as Silent Sam. Intolerance once motivated the creating of such memorials. It now finds new life by their continued presence.”
Guskiewicz also pointed to the monument’s location at a main entrance to campus.
“One of the first things that visitors encounter when they come to UNC is a monument representing racial inequality and injustice.”
The dean added that he felt Silent Sam jeopardized the university’s future as a leading public institution, saying that some faculty “are questioning if this is the place where they want to continue their career.”
UNC – Chapel Hill held a public comment session on Silent Sam in November 2017.
Folt has maintained that she would order the statue be removed, if she had the authority to do so, but says that she is limited by that 2015 law.
Silent Sam was spray painted in April 2017 – one of several cases of the monument being defaced since 2015.
The actions last spring led UNC – Chapel Hill Trustee Allie Ray McCullen to reach out to Folt questioning security around the monument.
“Unfortunately, this will continue to happen (as it has in the past) until we get cameras in the immediate area,” McCullen wrote. “The criminals or ‘Entitled Wimps’ must be arrested. If not, when they get out in the real world, the ‘Entitled Wimps’ could get in real trouble.”
UNC Police chief Jeff McCracken responded to McCullen on behalf of Folt.
“I agree that an arrest and successful prosecution would go a long way in curtailing this kind of activity,” McCracken wrote, “in fact the arrest that was made last year for the same offense may have contributed to the fact that this is the first vandalism of the statue this school year.”
McCracken added that the university had surveillance cameras watching Silent Sam, but that the quality at night made it difficult to identify a suspect.
“What can I do as a Trustee to help get cameras around Silent Sam that will work night & day?” McCullen responded. “When we live in an age that we can see what is happening on the moon, I am sure that we can obtain cameras that will work only a short distance from a statue.”
McCullen went on to once again refer to the individuals as “Entitled Wimps,” adding that, “It would be in their best interest to be stopped before they enter the real world.”
The aforementioned vice chancellor Crisp also wrote on August 21 that “these children need to grow up some,” in response to a message from the Campus Y saying that banners protesting Silent Sam had been “forcefully removed.”
McCullen did not respond to a request for comment sent through the university by the time this post was published.
UNC recently announced the university spent approximately $390,000 of the campus Department of Public Safety’s budget on an increased police presence around Silent Sam from July 2017 through June 2018.
Campus officials said leading up to the August 2017 rally that the focus was on safety for everyone on the campus.
Derek Kemp, the associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management, wrote in an email that the “message is quickly evolving,” after the Charlottesville rally.
Kemp wrote in early August that he had spoken to McCullen at a July Board of Trustees meeting in an attempt to address his concerns regarding cameras at the site.
“Showed [McCullen] some ‘before’ and ‘after’ nighttime camera shots of the monument so he could visualize the enhanced capability of the new cameras,” Kemp wrote. “Good conversation, and he thanked us for the effort. I will continue to regularly touch base with him at BOT.”
Emails also show campus safety officials discussing the possibility of tents being erected on the grounds around Silent Sam as protesters remained at the site for days after the August 22 rally.
“Tents are a violation of Facilities Use Policy,” Kemp wrote when drafting early talking points on the possibility. “Policy prevents temporary structures that have a potential safety risk. Term ‘structure’ includes tents, and other similar physical structures.”
Campus police ultimately removed items from the ongoing protest that officials said violated that policy the week after those emails were sent.
UNC Police were back in the spotlight later in 2017 after Silent Sam protesters filmed an interaction with a campus police officer who they claimed had been sitting around the statue in plain clothes and sympathizing with the protesters.
When initial media inquiries on the issue came in, campus police seemed to be aware of this practice being used. But director of media relations at UNC – Chapel Hill Joanne Peters was seeking confirmation as well, “Is this true?” Peters wrote to UNC Police spokesperson Randy Young of the alleged undercover operation.
The university went on to confirm the use of a plainclothes officer around Silent Sam, saying that it was “necessary because of extraordinary circumstances that included the very real potential for a violent outbreak at any time.”
Campus police chief Jeff McCracken wrote in an email to Kemp, when discussing talking points on the use of the officer, that this was the third time an undercover officer had been used in McCracken’s tenure, which dates back to 1993. The previous two instances, McCracken writes, had been one-day operations.
“The use of an undercover officer was not a planned operation but rather developed on 8/26/17 when approximately six individuals carrying confederate flags showed up at Mccorkle Place,” McCracken wrote. “At that time one of the officers that was working a plain clothes detail went and sat down with the group at the statue in an effort to find out what the response to the confederates was going to be (violent or peaceful).”
McCracken adds at that time he decided to have the officer “continue his interaction with the group at the statue over the next several days as a means to receive accurate real-time information concerning potential threats of violence.”
The officer’s last day operating in plain clothes in the group was September 7, McCracken wrote. The officer was outed by protesters in early November when another incident drew the officer to the area in his uniform.
As tensions were increasing around Silent Sam and monuments were being moved around the country, emails started pouring into the chancellor’s office.
“As a native and lifelong resident of North Carolina,” one person wrote, “I find it incomprehensible that anyone associated with the University of North Carolina, would recommend the removal of this beautiful statue.”
“If you believe that Robert E. Lee is not worthy of a statue, your ignorance is showing,” another wrote. The Silent Sam statue is intended to represent those who left UNC to fight in the Civil War; moving of monuments to Lee and other Confederate figures have drawn significant attention over the last year as well.
As the emails came in, a generic message from Folt was drafted and appears to have been sent as a response to all emails regarding Silent Sam:
“Thank you for writing about the Confederate Monument, better known as Silent Sam. How we address our past is deeply personal to many in our community and encompasses a wide range of perspectives. I encourage you to read my recent messages to campus linked here and here, which more fully explain the situation. Last week, the Board of Trustees affirmed the University’s obligations under the law, which require us to receive permission from the State Historical Commission to move it.
“Let me assure you that even if the law changed, any decision about the future of the statue would be made with great thought and deliberation and in compliance with our campus policies. In 2015, the Board of Trustees passed two resolutions, one that placed a 16-year freeze on renaming buildings and one that called for a broad effort to carefully and thoroughly curate Carolina’s history.
“Thank you again for writing.”
One individual, who identified himself as a veteran of the United States Air Force, said he was willing to come armed to the campus to protect the statue himself.
“I could put on my uniform, grab an M-16, and head on over to stand guard over my fellow soldier…..Trying to prevent a largely young, misguided from destroying memory of mine…..a reminder of the brave young men who have fought and died in conflict……Shame on those who wish to remove or destroy this statue !”
He received the same form response from Folt.
Other emails threatened to withhold donations from the university in the future, if Silent Sam was removed. That prompted David Routh, the vice chancellor for university development at UNC – Chapel Hill, to send a message to all development officers at the university directing them to a university-issued FAQ document that “should help you respond to various questions by alumni, friends and donors.”
Emails showed at least one donor reached out directly to Routh saying, “If the University chooses to defy the wishes of the majority of the people and removes it, then I will no longer support Carolina.”
After asking staff for the donor’s giving history, Routh responded:
“As a leadership team, we are very interested in preserving this piece of our history, protecting the monument itself, and ensuring that we have a safe campus environment without outside parties using our campus for their purposes — which can occasionally turn violent. I think we will find a solution that accomplishes all of these objectives.”
Routh went on to compliment students on the campus, saying that student-led protests have been “peaceful and respectful.” Routh pointed to “outside parties on both sides that are a challenge.”
Protests and Threats
After items were removed from the ongoing protest by campus police, protesters targeted high-traffic times to hand out information and call for Silent Sam’s removal. The first opportunity was the first football game of the 2017 season, which occurred two days after police had removed items from the Silent Sam protest.
These actions of handing out information around Silent Sam continued on football gamedays, including the September 24 matchup against Duke.
A graduate student alleged that a man walking across the campus that Saturday in late September threatened to kill one of the students who was handing out information. The graduate student passed the information along to history professor Lloyd Kramer.
“The point I wanted to make in sharing was to convey why and how some of our students feel threatened and unsafe on campus,” Kramer said in an email to faculty chair Leslie Parise. Kramer added that he shared the information with Folt as well, “so that she could understand better the level concern among certain faculty and students.”
Another email was sent to the chancellor’s office after the September 24 alleged harassment. In this instance, an individual identifying themselves as receiving two degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill urged Folt to act and have Silent Sam be removed.
“As long as you continue to place partisan agendas, fundraising goals, and a statue whose greatest public contribution has been to demean sexuality of UNC-CH undergraduate women above the safety of the UNC community, I will withhold any future donations to the University encourage my alumni network to boycott UNC on all fronts.”
He too received the same form response from Folt.
Maya Little, a graduate student in the history department at UNC – Chapel Hill and leading organizer of Silent Sam protests over the last year, went beyond chanting and handing out information on Monday, April 30, 2018.
Little went to Silent Sam and poured a mixture of what she said was her own blood and red paint on the monument.
“What do you see when you look at this statue, Chancellor?” Little wrote in a statement released after her arrest. “We see the mutilation of black bodies, the degradation of black people, the celebration of an army that fought for our ancestors’ enslavement. I see Julian Carr whipping a black woman. I see your willingness to traumatize, dehumanize, and endanger every black person on this campus. We see our blood and now you will too.”
Little is now facing criminal charges and honor court proceedings, which, Little says, could lead to her expulsion.
A Twitter account associated with protesters calling for the removal of Silent Sam has also slowly been releasing some of the emails that were also used in this story.
Charlottesville to Chapel Hill
Amid the fallout from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, city manager Maurice Jones received criticism for the town’s preparedness.
Multiple reports commissioned by Charlottesville and the Commonwealth of Virginia pointed to planning issues with the city overall and specifically in local police coordination with state troopers.
The Charlottesville City Council did not point to the rally as the sole reason but, ultimately, decided not to renew Jones contract when it expired in 2018. That coincided with the Town of Chapel Hill’s search for a new town manager, after Roger Stancil announced his retirement. On July 10, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted to approve Jones as the town’s next manager.
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said the town got glowing reviews of Jones and that changing political climates contributed to his contract not being renewed in Charlottesville. The mayor has expressed belief that lessons learned by Jones from the Charlottesville rally could be brought to Chapel Hill.
UNC – Chapel Hill has been focusing on contextualizing areas of the campus in recent years. That effort started with the renaming of Saunders Hall to Carolina Hall in 2015. The building had been named in honor of former North Carolina Secretary of State William L. Saunders, who was also purportedly a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina. A History Task Force has been directed by Folt to work on adding context to other areas of campus, including around Silent Sam.
While the campus has maintained it has no authority to bring a request to move Silent Sam to the North Carolina Historical Commission, the UNC System Board of Governors recently sent conflicting signals regarding the future of the monument. Newly elected system chair Harry Smith said after presiding over his first meeting that the board would “have a conversation” about the monument’s future. Several hours later Smith sent a “clarifying statement” saying that the board would not be acting on the statue and would instead await guidance from the historical commission.
The North Carolina Historical Commission, the state body directed to handle request to move “objects of remembrance,” has now scheduled a meeting to hear from the commission’s study committee on the topic for Wednesday, August 22.
Jones’ first day as town manager in Chapel Hill is scheduled for Monday, August 20. That same day a rally is being organized to once again call for the removal of Silent Sam.
Little, the graduate student who is facing charges for defacing Silent Sam, now has a court date scheduled for the criminal charges later this fall. An online petition calling for the university to drop Honor Court charges has nearly 6,000 signatures.