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There's Always Been Blood On UNC's Confederate Statue

Photo: Gerry Broome (AP Photo)

“I smeared my blood and red ink on the statue because the statue was lacking proper historical context. This statue, Silent Sam, was built on white supremacy. It was built by white supremacists. It was built by people who believed that Black people were inferior and wanted to intimidate them. So these statues were built on Black blood. These statues symbolize the violence toward Black people. Without that blood on the statue, it’s incomplete, in my opinion. It’s not properly contextualized.”

That is what Maya Little, a History PhD candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, told The Daily Tar Heel several hours after she stood tall in front of police officers and fellow students, dripping with red paint and with blood oozing from a gash on her left palm. A statue known on campus as Silent Sam stood behind her, roughly 10 feet taller than Little and splattered with her literal blood. On Monday, first through her actions and then through her words, Little made her intentions plain. She contextualized the iconic and controversial statue, a monument to a deeply dark cultural heritage that’s long been challenged in voice only. Of course it was violent.


To say, out loud, that Silent Sam stands for violence is a challenging prospect, if only because it is necessarily abstract. It’s not a difficult point to make—Silent Sam is, after all, a model of a confederate soldier—but the historical period it addresses if far enough in the past and painful enough in the present that the discussion surrounding it has splintered into glib, meme-y meta- and counter-history. If Silent Sam was radioactive and giving people cancer, say, or if the rust run-off from the monument somehow got into the Old Well and gave everyone tetanus then yes, of course, Silent Sam would come right down, because it could clearly be shown to be hurting students, and hurting all students equally.

It’s that last bit that’s the sticking point. The pain that the statue causes Little and the entire Silent Sam Sit-In crew is related directly to what the statue represents, the literal reason for which it stands. But it’s a pain that can be coopted by those who feel it less acutely, for the inane purpose of starting a shouting match—something to debate, something to weigh, a discussion framed around unquantifiable feelings. This manages to completely miss both the point of the protests and the point of the Silent Sam statue, and so naturally it was the discussion that dominated the proceedings when the North Carolina Historical Commission held a public forum on the topic of Confederate statues back in late March. (This is a two-hour video, so either pop some popcorn or pick a five-minute bit at random.)

Among the arguments and terms lobbed the Commission’s way in the first hour:

“They’ve been there for a long time, just keep them up.”

“In New Orleans, crime is up since the Robert E. Lee Statue was torn down.”

“Criminal leftists.”

“War of Northern Aggression.”

These arguments were countered by a similar number of more progressive and/or historically inclined folks, including a woman who called the Confederacy “traitors,” and a man that said “until they can take back their heritage [from skinheads, Nazis, and white supremacists], they should remove the statue.” The forum did not produce a particular winner so much as it did a bunch of reiteration from both sides.


Despite or perhaps because of this, it was easy to see how many white North Carolinians might categorize this forum as a success, regardless of where they fall on the statue itself. This is not because of the outcome—there was none—but because of the process, which saw folks from opposite sides of the political spectrum and different racial backgrounds come together and attempt to participate in a discussion aimed at allowing the Commission to make a democratic decision that would reflect all the cultures represented in the Tar Heel State. It didn’t go anywhere, but it was a conversation—a mostly circular conversation about the other side of the conversation as much as it was about the statue or that statue’s history, but a conversation all the same. North Carolina has been stuck in this spot for too long. The goal of making North Carolina a society built by and for all of its citizens is not so much facing a headwind as it is stuck in a looping quicksand whirlpool. There is public discourse, which is better than the alternative. But quicksand does what quicksand does.

My grandfather and mom are history buffs, and I’ve visited my fair share of historical markers in the North Carolina/Virginia region. I’ve breathed the weighty air at Appomattox, and I’ve walked the grounds at the Bennet Place in Durham, where the Civil War technically ended. I’ve stood in sunny Virginia fields as a kid and genuinely enjoyed a Civil War battle reenactment. That probably has something to do with the fact that I now do things like listen to public forums on statues for entertainment.


Being born in the South, even if you don’t have history buffs in the family, means that you will absorb the majority of this history one way or another, either through direct education or cultural osmosis. The history of the Civil War that’s taught in our schools is an incomplete one, as I’m guessing is the one that’s taught in the North. Both of these histories represent forms that are unbalanced and dangerously cavalier in how they categorize both the causes and the stakes of the battles, and this naturally results in passing down a history that has long been purposefully misleading and whitewashed; in my case, that means ignoring the Native American impact on the Civil War, despite the fact that my tribe, like the other tribes of North Carolina, gave its boys and young men to every American war, starting with the Revolution. (This article, “Native Americans In The Civil War,” is a great read on that topic.) All of which is to point out that, as someone who paid taxes in North Carolina last year and lived in the state for 22 years and is the descendant of Civil War veterans and CSA supporters, the fight over Silent Sam is very much my fight.

But here’s the strange part: there is no fight. There’s some half-hearted discussion, sure, but to the extent any actual contention exists, it’s not a fair fight. People in the state will tell you what they think of the statues; they might even raise their voice and mention ancestral military service records if they’re so moved. But to slash your hand, to take your own blood and your career and a bunch of red paint and throw it all at a statue that is currently being protected by the state government—that’s fighting. That’s doing something uncomfortable and drastic, and also necessary given how little all this conversation has done to contextualize Silent Sam or the Civil War, or complicate the worldview of those who see only disrespect in the arguments for alteration or removal.


All these forums and debates and talks—often funded and promoted by the North Carolina General Assembly—have served their purpose, which is to have forums and debates and talks where there might otherwise be action. The statue, culturally and legally, is a defined part of the storied Chapel Hill campus; Silent Sam is North Carolina history, and therefore there is nothing to be done about it, or for it. This is the goal: to make this statue of a confederate soldier, on the campus of the state’s flagship public school, into something as permanent as the weather. Talk about it all you want, but there’s really nothing to be done about it.

Silent Sam was sponsored and put up in 1913; it cost $7,500 at the time, which is roughly $190,000 in 2018 dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The statue was financed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and was “aided by the alumni of the university,” though the two groups couldn’t raise the full funds and ended up needing UNC to foot the final $500, per UNC libraries.


The statue’s two inscriptions read as follows:




Here are some things to know about the two groups that paid for this big hunk of metal:

The United Daughters of the Confederacy is a group that pushed the “Lost Cause” narrative in the decades following the war, in part by funding thousands of similar statues across the South. You know these myths about the Civil War even if you didn’t hear them in North Carolina’s towns and rural areas—the idea of Northern Aggression, of a war solely about state’s rights, of slaves willingly fighting for their masters. The UDC’s passion for the Confederacy is still going strong: In 1993, they turned to Jesse Helms to fight for them in the U.S. Senate when their license for a Confederate Flag symbol was challenged. He did so happily, but lost to Carol Moseley Braun, an Illinois Senator who also happened to be an African-American woman. More recently, UDC chapters and members have fought the current wave of statue removals, with one member speaking in defense of the statues at the N.C. Historical Commission forum this past March.


Then there are the alumni. The select alumni group that assisted the UDC was comprised wholly white men—no women, no African-Americans, no Native Americans. This part is fairly open-and-shut, honestly.

The speech-giver at the ceremony was Julian Carr, the extremely rich and innovative head of tobacco company Bull Durham’s advertising department; the wealth Carr acquired there was partially reinvested in the local universities, UNC and Duke, which in turn named buildings after him. He was also the leader of the state’s United Confederate Veterans chapter. In Carr’s dedication speech, he made sure to include an anecdote about the time he “horse-whipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds,” roughly 100 yards from where the statue still stands; later in the speech he remarked that “the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States—Praise God.”


That is who put Silent Sam on the UNC campus, and that is why they put him there. It is a statue cleverly dedicated to students who died fighting for their state’s right to enslave and brutalize half or more of its denizens based on their skin color, funded by the people who supported that specific cause. Whether the poor farm boys that went off to war believed it or not, that was the cause of their generals and commanders. There is no debate—read the speech, read the inscription, read a fucking book. When Silent Sam went up back in 1913 everyone involved was very clear about what he meant and why he was there.

On Feb. 28, 1861, North Carolina’s voting citizens—a limited and entirely white pool, naturally—narrowly voted in favor of joining the Confederacy’s cause. The margin was 47,337-46,673, according to a vote count that appeared in the March 14, 1861 edition of the Fayetteville Observer. If that vote count is to be believed, the Tar Heel state, the last of the confederacy to secede, went to war and sacrificed more soldiers’ lives than any other CSA state thanks to 664 votes. And yet it is still not those 664 votes—or the men who led the war-hawking that created the conditions for all the deaths to come—that have borne the brunt of the Civil War-concerned disgust in North Carolina. It has, instead, been those that found themselves on the opposite side.

“Silent Sam with graffiti, April 8, 1968”
Photo: Hugh Morton (UNC Libraries)

Calls for Silent Sam’s removal on the basis of its racist origins and essence came as early as 1965, when a student at the Daily Tar Heel penned a letter to the editor questioning its place on campus. Three years later, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the statue was painted in protest, not dissimilarly to what took place this week.


From that point on, Silent Sam became a protest location, and one no longer reserved for anti-war activist as it had been during Vietnam and World War II. It was for students that were against the continued presence of the statue itself, and while the students staged multiple protests through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the university and its top brass remained committed to keeping it on-campus, even spending $8,600 in 1986 to have the statue cleaned and repaired in Cincinnati.

This went on for decades. It’s still going on, now. This dumb statue has figured in protests virtually from the moment it arrived on campus.


In 1938, Pauli Murray, a black woman born in New York and raised in Durham, wrote a letter protesting her rejection solely on the basis of her race to then-UNC president Franklin Porter Graham, who was heralded as one of the true Southern liberals of his time. She wrote Graham multiple letters, only to have him write back and criticize the pace of the early civil rights movement while also pointing out that Yankees and northern schools can also be racist.

Fast forward 79 years, and Sam is still at the center of this old and fundamentally still un-joined argument. After Takiyah Thompson and her fellow North Carolina citizens used the reactionary rally in Charlottesville as inspiration to tear down the Confederate statue in Durham last August, the state’s Democratic Party showed its colors, and its limits. In the hours after the Durham statue crumpled, North Carolina’s Democratic governor tweeted a half-hearted statement: “The racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.”


It took almost a full day before he posted a lengthier response, in which he laid out the following plan:

First, the North Carolina legislature must repeal a 2015 law that prevents removal or relocation of monuments. Cities, counties and the state must have the authority and opportunity to make these decisions.

Second, I’ve asked the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to determine the cost and logistics of removing Confederate monuments from state property as well as alternatives for their placement at museums or historical sites where they can be studied in context.

Third, the North Carolina legislature should defeat a bill that grants immunity from liability to motorists who strike protesters. That bill passed the state House and remains alive in the Senate. The Senate should kill it. Full stop. Those who attack protesters, weaponizing their vehicles like terrorists, should find no safe haven in our state.


If you’re counting, two of Governor Roy Cooper’s three plans are not actually plans at all—they are hopeless pleas to a General Assembly over which he has no control and which he had to know would be, given its partisan makeup, inclined to defy him. The third hinges upon action that the NCGA would have to sanction.

The NCGOP held a super-majority in the House and the Senate at the time of that statement, and still does. Even Cooper’s vetoes can be overridden because of the super-majority, so he doesn’t even bother sometimes, even on the some of the heinous pieces of legislation. In essence, this was a longer, prettier version of Cooper’s initial tweet—there has to be a better way, he pleads to Republican legislators whose own professed better way is somehow erecting more statues. Everything after that amounts to a shrug.


Over at UNC, Chancellor Carol Folt has likewise perfected her stalling tactics. Folt joined UNC in 2013, when calls for Silent Sam’s removal rang just as loud as they had in the previous four decades. Rather than take a direct role in contextualizing the statue or issuing its removal, UNC kicked the decision to a “Dialectic and Philanthropic Joint Senate,” which decided in 2013 the statue would not be moved.

Two years later, the Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly tried to make that decision permanent. Recognizing the advantages of the super-majority, the NCGA passed Senate Bill 22, which dictated the following:

a monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State may not be removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission


And there it was: a law that specifically protected these monuments by placing the power to remove them into the hands of a group of historians that would have to vote together to remove the Confederate monuments one by one. All too often a similar call has always come from historians and people like the North Carolina Historical Commission—they ask for more context, for additional markers and signs to be placed around the original statue, or they ask for Silent Sam to be moved to a location that houses other Civil War monuments and related relics. UNC’s History department, thankfully, has been very clear that it views the statue as a “festering wound.”

Then came Charlottesville; suddenly, that piece of paper signed by mostly white guys started to look less and less protective. But UNC brass, led by Folt, clung to it all the same, realizing that if they did nothing—if they remained silent and refused to take a side other than the side of listening to everyone’s opinion—they might just escape this with their reputation and careers intact.


Instead, over the past eight months, the opposite has happened. The chicanery has been revealed for what it is, and the leadership has been revealed as so self-protective that it’s been frozen since August.

This video is uncomfortable to watch. It is not uncomfortable because one human being is grilling another human being over something she does not solely have the power to change; it is uncomfortable because UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, a university executive who has been trained specifically for this moment, does exactly what she’s supposed to do. At every public event, she is prepared for an engagement like this with an enraged student or faculty member—she offers her initial comment, waits for her team of PR flaks to move the person along, and then snaps back into character, offering pepperoni with a big smile. Of course it’s awkward.


A statue mounted by the few will eventually be torn down by the many—this is not new, and it wasn’t new knowledge when UNC and the UDC placed this particular statue on-campus 105 years ago. Silent Sam occupies a different space, because that’s the only way these totems can remain. The institutions that installed and protected this statue stand atop a protective foundation of lawyers, police officers, and PR experts; they tell the students and citizens demanding action that their hands are tied. That is the whole plan: doing nothing, speaking in carefully selected words that mean and result in nothing.


We are now into the end game for CSA statues, and more immediately for Silent Sam. Those defending the statues are failing not because their tactics are bad—they have worked for a long time—but because they are old and because no one is falling for them anymore. The people for a new, united South understand that passivity is not a way forward—pacifism, sure, but never passivity.

What Maya Little did this week takes guts; a black woman in a PhD program calling out her chancellor after vandalizing a rancid piece of school property is a bold, brave move designed to energize this protest. It is one thing to write “tear the fuckers down,” it is another thing entirely to go out and actively sidestep the bureaucracy with direct action.


Since Little adorned the statue with a bottle of paint and her blood, the red substances have been pressure-washed from the statue’s base. She has been detained by police and given a court date (May 7) to answer for her actions. In spirit, thousands will be with her, but when the moment comes she will be alone in front of a judge, and she will serve her sentence alone. She did not begin the Silent Sam protests 50 years ago, and it seems unlikely that she alone will be the one to bring the statue tumbling to the earth. But when Maya Little speaks on Silent Sam, she acts with a conviction and decisiveness the leaders of North Carolina can only aspire to.

I don’t expect Silent Sam to come down at the word of the N.C. Historical Commission, or the NCGA, or the UNC brass. I expect one day somebody or some group will toss a rope around the midsection of the garish boy soldier and drag it down; they’ll be called lawless leftists and worse for having done so. That said, should UNC or the General Assembly ever decide to take a half-measure and actually attempt to right the wrongs of Silent Sam by way of contextualization, they’ve got a new inscription ready to go. It should read:

“I smeared my blood and red ink on the statue because the statue was lacking proper historical context. This statue, Silent Sam, was built on white supremacy. It was built by white supremacists. It was built by people who believed that Black people were inferior and wanted to intimidate them. So these statues were built on Black blood. These statues symbolize the violence toward Black people. Without that blood on the statue, it’s incomplete, in my opinion. It’s not properly contextualized.”

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