UNC System settles media lawsuit, but where’s Silent Sam?

Documents from Daily Tar Heel settlement show everyone dodged accountability for Confederate monument

Silent Sam in August 2017. Image by Martin KraftMJK49376 Silent SamCC BY-SA 3.0

Silent Sam still isn’t talking. And even though the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the student Daily Tar Heel newspaper and the University of North Carolina System was announced this week, officials at the system office and the Chapel Hill campus won’t say where the century-old Confederate Monument is hiding. And whether he’ll ever stand publicly again.

The DTH settlement documents show a series of posterior-covering moves by UNC Chapel Hill officials and UNC Board of Governors members, along with senior UNC System policymakers and lawyers. They shared one goal: Make this sh*itshow disappear. And burn off our fingerprints in the process.

The Confederate Monument, aka Silent Sam, has been a flashpoint for protesters for decades. It was often in the news not long ago: from August 2017, as demonstrators at UNC reacted to the white supremacist-led Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; through 2018, when students occupied the area surrounding the statue and used blowtorches to remove it from its base; until early 2020, when DTH filed its lawsuit.

The lawsuit charged UNC officials with violating the state’s open meetings law in November 2019, when the university system secretly offered to pay more than $3 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans (which didn’t own the statue), offload the statue to the group, and hope the controversy over Silent Sam’s disappearance would end.

Nope.

State Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour tossed the heart of the financial deal in February 2020 — a $2.5 million payment to the SCV to “maintain” the statue away from campus — even though he signed off on the settlement three months earlier. 

This week’s agreement diverted the remaining $74,999 to “racial equity” programs on campus.

Here’s how far UNC was willing to go to try to bury the Silent Sam mess: In a deposition, former UNC System VP for Communications Earl Whipple wrote an op-ed defending the payout scheme. The News & Observer published it. But the article was “signed” by five Board of Governors members charged with working out a Silent Sam deal. Whipple admitted the five never reviewed the text.

The op-ed also hinted that the full BOG approved the deal. In fact, the board never took a vote.

And we still don’t know where Silent Sam is, its fate undetermined.

Eventually, Southerners will have to confront the problematic legacy of Confederate monuments — especially those, like Silent Sam, that were commissioned and erected decades after the Civil War, during an era stained by white-on-black mob violence, lynchings, and other indefensible racist acts.

The memorial to early 20th century Democratic Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, who championed white supremacy and led the call for an amendment to disenfranchise blacks, still sits on Raleigh’s Capitol grounds. I photographed it last summer.

Leaders of the UNC System tried desperately to disappear Silent Sam, a visible part of that legacy, down the memory hole. 

They failed. But in doing so, they showed that some leaders of our most venerated public institutions remain afraid to grapple with shameful aspects of our past.

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