Confederate monument felled at University of North Carolina, leading to arrests, university outcry

A Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) was toppled by a group of protesters, the culmination of decadeslong tension surrounding the statue. University officials condemned the act as dangerous vandalism, and three people were arrested on misdemeanor charges. Seven more were arrested during clashes on the issue days later. The events led to topical dialogue at nearby Duke University, where a prominent donor is affiliated with the UNC statue.

Key Players

Image: Martin Kraft (
License: CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons

“Silent Sam” is the nickname for the toppled statue of a Confederate soldier at UNC. The name derived from his lack of ammunition and hence inability to fire his gun. 

Originally commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor the nearly 300 UNC students who died fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the statue was approved by the university in 1908 and unveiled in 1913, according to a history compiled by Time magazine.

Over the past several decades, “Silent Sam” has been a source of tension and protest at UNC. Activity began in the 1960s, when student protesters covered the statue in red paint following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to Time. The statue remained a gathering place for speeches and demonstrations by Black student groups for decades.

In May 2018, UNC student Maya Little vandalized the statue with paint and her own blood to provide the “proper historical context” for it, she said. Little was also a leader in the August protest that toppled “Silent Sam.”

Julian Carr was a prominent industrialist and white supremacist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a pivotal donor at Duke University in nearby Durham, North Carolina. Among other things, Carr endorsed the Ku Klux Klan’s ideology and tactics and argued against suffrage for the Black community, according to The Chronicle, Duke University’s independent student newspaper.

Carr donated the land on which Duke’s East Campus would eventually sit. His contributions led to the building that houses the university’s history department being named for him. 

At the dedication of “Silent Sam,” Carr,  an alumnus of UNC, said the statue was a testament to the “welfare of the Anglo Saxon race,” according to Time. In that speech, Carr also described an incident in which he had, just 100 yards away from where the statue was erected, heavily whipped a Black woman for “publicly insulting” a white woman.

Further Details

Calls for the removal of “Silent Sam” escalated in tandem with the recent debate over Confederate monuments across the country. In particular, protests intensified after the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was sparked by the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a prominent location. 

In September 2017, 22 faculty members sent an open letter to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, calling for the removal of “Silent Sam,” according to the alternative newspaper IndyWeek. The letter came amid student protests, including a sit-in around the statue.

Last year, according to The New York Times, the university said that “removing the Confederate monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus,” but that a North Carolina law made it impossible to do so on just the university’s authority. The 2015 law in question mandates that state-owned monuments, memorials, and artworks — including the “Silent Sam” statue at UNC, a public university — could not be “removed, relocated or altered” without the permission of a state historical commission. 

Yet the university also neglected calls, including one from Gov. Roy Cooper (D), to use a legal loophole that would allow UNC to remove the statue because it allegedly presented “a threat to public safety.” Furthermore, the university chose not to pursue actively the legal process for removing it, according to The Times. The state historical commission said it had not received requests for action from the university or its governors.

The university’s continued inaction reached a tipping point when, on Aug. 20, 2018, a group of some 250 protesters toppled “Silent Sam.” They draped the statue with several banners before taking it down, including one that read “Unnamed Black women beaten by Julian Carr,” according to Time. Protesters tried to bury the severed head of “Silent Sam,” but university officials hauled away the statue’s remains before they could do that, according to The Times, and stored them in an undisclosed location.

Reactions to the downfall of “Silent Sam” were split. Onlookers to the event described it as historic and characterized the atmosphere as celebratory and liberating. University officials, conversely, contended that the toppling of “Silent Sam” was a dangerous act of vandalism, but sought to reconcile that with the tensions the statue had ignited on campus.

In an open letter to the UNC community Aug. 21, Folt acknowledged the statue had been “divisive for years” and that “its presence has been a source of frustration for many people.” Still, she noted that taking down the statue in such a manner was “unlawful and dangerous,” and that authorities were investigating the incident.

The president of the North Carolina statewide university system, along with the chair of its board of governors, echoed these sentiments, calling the events “unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible,” according to The Times.

Days after the statue was pulled down, clashes broke out on UNC’s campus between protesters with Confederate flags and counterprotesters condemning white supremacy. Seven people were arrested, of whom several were charged with assault, according to The Washington Post.

Within weeks, the university reported that it was looking into a less prominent “alternative location” on campus where the statue could stand, according to CNN. One member of UNC’s board of governors tweeted that “Silent Sam” would be reinstalled within three months, “as required by state law.”


Two found guilty in felling “Silent Sam”

On April 25, 2019, The News & Observer reported that District Court Judge Lunsford Long found two defendants guilty of injury to real property, misdemeanor riot and defacing a public statue or monument. Four individuals had been charged in total. One defendant faces new charges, however, after the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said he brought a knife into the courthouse before his hearing.

Duke history professors call to rename Carr Building

After “Silent Sam” was toppled, history professors at Duke renewed calls for the Carr Building to be renamed, citing Carr’s white supremacist past — including his words at the dedication of the statue at UNC. Professors had expressed concerns over the name in the past, which were intensified after the violent riots in Charlottesville, Virginia.

According to The Times, Duke’s history faculty voted unanimously at the end of the spring semester of 2018 to rename the Carr Building for Raymond Gavins, the first Black history professor at Duke, who taught there for nearly five decades. The faculty filed this request with the university at the start of the fall 2018 semester, according to The Chronicle.

On December 1, 2018, Duke Today reported that administrators had decided to rename the Carr building the Classroom Building, its original name.

Decision to resurrect “Silent Sam” leads to protests

On Dec. 3, the university’s board of trustees announced plans to build an educational center to house “Silent Sam” in a less prominent part of campus. The center would cost $5.3 million to construct and $800,000 annually to maintain, according to the Washington Post. Though the university says it would prefer to remove “Silent Sam” from campus altogether and place him in a museum, the North Carolina law prevents it from doing so.

The decision to preserve “Silent Sam” on campus, and in particular the cost to do so, sparked objections almost immediately at UNC. By the night of Dec. 3, hundreds protested in the streets of Chapel Hill.

In the subsequent days, instructors at UNC announced they would withhold grades until the board of trustees withdrew its plan to relocate “Silent Sam.” Some 80 instructors — largely teaching assistants — signed a petition to withhold grades, according to The Daily Tar Heel.

By Dec. 12, more than 200 UNC faculty had signed an open letter to parents calling for support of the instructors’ strike and for the permanent removal of “Silent Sam.” These signatories make up some of the more than 800 UNC undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, current and former athletes, alumni, and community members who have signed onto such letters calling for “Silent Sam’s” removal, according to The News & Observer

UNC board of governors denies plan to preserve “Silent Sam”

On Friday, Dec. 14, UNC’s board of governors deliberated on the proposed relocation of “Silent Sam” and voted to deny the proposal. The board decided that for public safety reasons, along with the expense of the plan, it could not accept it. The board also charged the university with recommending other options by March 15, 2019, according to The Atlantic

Folt steps down

On Jan. 14, 2019, Folt announced her resignation. Members of the board of governors — including Chairman Harry Smith — condemned the order and criticized Folt not speaking with the board about stepping down. Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts & Sciences, became the school’s interim chancellor on Feb. 6.

A year later, Silent Sam goes to NC Confederate group

In November 2019, more than a year after Silent Sam was felled — and after the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) filed suit against the UNC system and its board of governors — the university agreed to turn the statue over to the group as part of a settlement agreement, according to The Daily Tar Heel. The SCV, a group of male descendants of Confederate soldiers that dates back to 1896, is dedicated to “preserving the history and legacy of these heroes” (i.e. Confederate soldiers).

In addition to determining custody of Silent Sam, the agreement also stipulated that the statue cannot be reinstated in any of the counties that fall within the UNC system and that UNC will dedicate $2.5 million to an independent trust for the care and preservation of the monument, The Tar Heel reports.

Guskiewicz expressed his “deepest appreciation” for the resolution of the issue. “This means Silent Sam will never return to our campus,” he wrote in a campuswide email.

But some members of the university community argued the settlement did not go far enough and condemned the university’s association with the SVC. “The fact that UNC is spending money to prop up this statue and harm communities elsewhere in the state is not a victory in my opinion, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the issue is resolved,” Sadler said in an interview with The Tar Heel. “It’s a disgrace.” 

“I don’t even have words for how insane this is,” Sturkey wrote in an email to The Tar Heel. “It’s like something out of a movie. Obviously, we should stop subsidizing the Confederacy.” 

Then, in February 2020, the judge who had originally approved the settlement between the UNC system and the SCV voided the agreement, saying the SCV lacked standing and dismissing the case pending return of the statue to the UNC system. Both sides expressed disappointment in this new result, according to The News & Observer. With this decision, the judge also ruled that the $2.5 million dedicated to the trust be returned to the UNC system, with the exception of $82,000 that had already been spent on legal fees.