When she was growing up in Chapel Hill in the 1960s, Paula Craige didn’t give much thought to Silent Sam. As the chief of the division of cardiology at the UNC School of Medicine, her father was a prominent member of the university community. The Confederate monument was just part of the furniture of the campus, a focal point for student and townie gatherings.
On Tuesday night, Craige joined a crowd at Peace and Justice Plaza to celebrate the removal of the pedestal, a final remnant of the statue toppled by antiracists last August.
“It’s such a relief, as if a cancerous node had been removed,” Craige reflected. She said she had told fundraisers she wouldn’t donate a dime to the university as long as Silent Sam was still standing; now, it’s time for her to make a contribution.
Students and community allies mingled and conversed at the gathering. They ate pizza, danced to the Coup’s “The Guillotine” and listened to a couple speeches. It was a convivial gathering free of the tension that attended previous events marred by conflict with police and neo-Confederate monument supporters. Not that they were far away: From inside Graham Memorial Hall, officers monitored the patch of dirt and concrete underneath the vanished monument, and three neo-Confederate activists briefly circulated through the crowd at Peace and Justice Plaza handing out a flier emphasizing the connection between the Carolina nickname “Tar Heel” and Confederate soldiers.
But for the antiracists celebrating on Franklin Street, the term simply refers to students, faculty and staff at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It’s a damn good day to be a Tar Heel,” said Michelle Brown, a member of the Class of 2018. “It took a long time to be able to say that, and it just felt good to say it. It kind of sucks to graduate before I could say that. Class of 2019: Congratulations, you can be proud to graduate as Tar Heels.”
Brown and others pointed out the obvious: Student activists made it happen; Chancellor Carol Folt’s order to remove the pedestal in the early morning hours of Tuesday while also announcing her resignation came only after she was backed into a corner by an increasingly disgruntled board of governors and continuing threats to student safety.
“The only reason that the chancellor buckled is because we put the pressure on her,” Brown said. “That’s what makes change happen. This was a community effort. And the TA strike, despite all the negative comments, it friggin’ worked, y’all. For everyone who supported us, keep supporting us. And Chancellor Folt, you took a long time, but damn, girl, you did it.”
If Folt’s belated decision to remove what one local judge called an “incendiary” symbol means that many students, alumni and Chapel Hill community members can again claim the institution with pride, for others the chancellor’s action represents a profound loss.
Gary Williamson, the founder of the neo-Confederate group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC, was arrested early Tuesday morning after attempting to shiv a tire in the heavy machinery used to lift the pedestal from its base.
The next day he reflected on Facebook about how the events at UNC-Chapel Hill repeated a humiliation he experienced when he watched workers remove the Jefferson Davis statue overnight in New Orleans in May 2017.
“Only the few that want to destroy our country and history are pleased to see evil carried out,” Williamson wrote. “How do we stop it? We stand up and get fed up. Stop letting the few control the majority.”
For some white North Carolinians like Williamson, the removal of Confederate symbols represents the first step in a more sinister effort to “erase us completely,” as he wrote in another recent Facebook post. While ACTBAC avoids overt racial appeals, it’s not hard to read between the lines in statements such as, “We, true Southern people, can accept defeat, but giving up is never an option.”
For another kind of white North Carolinian, the removal of Silent Sam is a long overdue correction.
“It’s emblematic of the sweep across the country of consciousness about race and sex and class,” Paula Craige said. “It’s the kids toppling the old farts my dad’s age. And toppling me. They’re saying, ‘It’s time for you to get out of the way.’”
Raul Jimenez, 28, one of five people charged with misdemeanor riot for allegedly pulling Silent Sam from its base last August, stood outside the metal barricades surveying the bare ground with a sense of satisfaction. He’ll be in court in Hillsborough on Friday, as part of a group of about 20 antiracists who face a litany of charges related to the struggle over Silent Sam.
“This is a vindication for all those who have been charged,” Jimenez said. “It’s a vindication for the community that came together and took an action and altered everything around it. It shows people are saying no to white supremacy.”