The front line in the impending battle between those who want Confederate monuments in North Carolina to come down and those who stand opposed is likely to be found beside Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, home of the state’s flagship university.
That is where Silent Sam, a monument of an unnamed Confederate soldier, has stood on the UNC campus since it was crafted by John Wilson, paid for by UNC alumni and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and dedicated in 1913. Sam has been under attack before, but probably never with more fervor than now, which includes a sit-in by UNC students that ended late last week.
In one corner are those who see Silent Sam and similar monuments, including the one at the Robeson County courthouse, as racist reminders of this state’s ugly role in the Civil War and its defense of slavery; in the other corner are those who say they are simply historical markers that honor ancestors who lived under a different set of mores and fought bravely for a way of life.
Silent Sam has one important ally — North Carolina law.
Two years ago, not long after Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church and slaughtered nine blacks and injured a 10th, the General Assembly moved to try to protect Silent Sam and other such monuments from emotionally-fueled attacks that had been triggered.
The Republican-led General Assembly passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a bill that prevents “removing, relocating, or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission.”
Surprisingly, the bill passed the Senate in a 48-0 vote. The House vote, though overwhelming, split 70-37 in favor, with Robeson County Reps. Charles Graham, Garland Pierce and Ken Goodman, all Democrats, voting against the bill.
There are now calls to repeal the legislation, with critics pointing out that local governments that had the power to erect such monuments are powerless now to take them down. But any repeal is unlikely as long as Republicans have a stranglehold on the General Assembly, and votes to take down Confederate symbols can be tricky as well for Democrats.
So who is this Historical Commission with the veto power? It is a 17-person board, under the Department of Cultural Resources, whose members — mostly professors and historians — are appointed by the governor to six-year terms. The commission “advises and assists the Secretary of Cultural Resources and oversees the rules and regulations for acquisition, disposition, preservation, and use of materials of historical, archaeological, architectural or other cultural value.”
As far as we know, the commission has never been challenged to make the call on whether or not a monument should be removed or relocated, but our bet is that Silent Sam will be the test case. The commission, if asked to make the call, could then do so after reasonable conversation and deliberation.
That seems a fair way to decide the fate of these memorials, certainly preferable to toppling them as a way to placate angry and often uniformed protesters. In that respect, the 2015 law appears to us as being reasonable.
We would like to see the Historical Commission asked and then for it to give approval for the relocation of Silent Sam, perhaps to a museum where it can enjoy some peace and quiet. That not only would silence Silent Sam’s critics, but provide a path forward for similar monuments across the state, including the one in downtown Lumberton.