We stand at a de­ci­sive mo­ment on Silent Sam. We should not be afraid.

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JAMES LELOUDIS James Leloudis is pro­fes­sor of his­tory at UNC-Chapel Hill.

On Mon­day, the UNCChapel Hill Board of Trustees will vote on the dis­po­si­tion of Silent Sam. Theirs is an awe­some re­spon­si­bil­ity, and the choice they make will be remembered as a defin­ing state­ment for our time. In mo­ments like this, his­tory can pro­vide help­ful per­spec­tive.

Dur­ing the 1920s, a new gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents and fac­ulty in Chapel Hill be­gan, ever-so-cau­tiously, to ex­plore the ques­tion of “whether or not to main­tain racial seg­re­ga­tion.” That ef­fort met stiff re­sis­tance. On campus, his­to­rian Joseph Hamil­ton de­manded that there be “no yield­ing on the ques­tion of the ad­mis­sion of the ne­gro to equal­ity.” Out­side the univer­sity, crit­ics ob­jected in terms echoed to­day. They de­nounced fac­ulty who chased “fads and fan­cies” and in­sisted that pro­fes­sors stick to their du­ties as “teach­ers of reg­u­lar cour­ses.”

That op­po­si­tion left many in Chapel Hill hes­i­tant and afraid. So­ci­ol­o­gist Howard Odum ex­plained: “We are afraid to protest. We are afraid to leg­is­late. We are afraid to en­force law and lib­erty. We are afraid to teach. We are afraid to preach. Afraid of the pub­lic, afraid of the dem­a­gogue, and deep down, ra­tio­nal­iz­ing amid the fears, we are afraid to do any­thing . . . . We are all afraid.”

Friends of the univer­sity urged cau­tion, fear­ful of the po­lit­i­cal price of any chal­lenge to Jim Crow. What they failed to cal­cu­late was the much larger cost of in­ac­tion: the vi­o­lence and daily degra­da­tion in­flicted on blacks and Na­tive Amer­i­cans, and the poverty, ill­ness, and ig­no­rance suf­fered by many whites as well in a state more concerned to main­tain white supremacy than to in­vest in the health and well-be­ing of its cit­i­zens.

To­day, we stand at a sim­i­larly de­ci­sive mo­ment. The de­bate over Silent Sam is highly charged, and its res­o­lu­tion will re­quire good­will and for­bear­ance from all par­ties. My ex­pe­ri­ence has been that when peo­ple ex­am­ine the his­tory of the mon­u­ment, they un­der­stand why it has no place on the campus of a univer­sity owned by, and ded­i­cated to serv­ing, all the peo­ple of North Carolina.

Sev­eral ob­ser­va­tions might help us think through the de­ci­sion at hand:

As the Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion (AHA) noted in a state­ment made last year, “to re­move [Con­fed­er­ate] mon­u­ments is nei­ther to ‘change’ his­tory nor ‘erase it.’ What changes with such re­moval is what Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties de­cide is wor­thy of civic honor.” Put an­other way, each new gen­er­a­tion has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make its own moral judg­ments, in­formed by his­tory but not be­holden to the past for the past’s sake.

The AHA also re­minds us that Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments were erected “with­out any­thing re­sem­bling a demo­cratic process.” African Amer­i­cans had no voice in the mat­ter. Nor did de­scen­dants of white south­ern­ers who de­fended the Union, or those who de­voted their lives to build­ing a more just and eq­ui­table fu­ture af­ter Eman­ci­pa­tion. The re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments does not cre­ate a slip­pery slope that will lead to dis­hon­or­ing the na­tion’s founders, or in the case of UNC-Chapel Hill, lead­ers from the eras of slav­ery and Jim Crow. Again, the AHA: “Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton owned en­slaved peo­ple, but the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment ex­ists be­cause of his con­tri­bu­tions to the build­ing of a na­tion. There is no log­i­cal equiv­a­lence be­tween the builders and pro­tec­tors of a na­tion – how­ever im­per­fect – and the men who sought to sunder that na­tion in the name of slav­ery.” False analo­gies should not mis­lead us.

The re­moval of mon­u­ments does not de­stroy their value as teach­ing tools. Schol­ars teach ev­ery day with ar­ti­facts that they nei­ther pos­sess nor have close to hand. Those ob­jects are held at his­toric sites and in mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tions. With to­day’s tech­nolo­gies, they can be dig­i­tized, doc­u­mented, re­pro­duced, and made ac­ces­si­ble to stu­dents on a scale unimag­in­able just a few years ago. Fi­nally, the re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments erected in the Jim Crow era does not ban­ish from mem­ory the men who died in war. The names of UNC’s Con­fed­er­ate dead are in­scribed on mar­ble tablets that flank the stage in Memo­rial Hall. They are also part of the memo­rial to Those Lost in Mil­i­tary Ser­vice, ded­i­cated out­side of Memo­rial Hall in 2007. In th­ese places, the univer­sity mourns the hu­man­ity of the fallen. Theirs were hun­dreds of lives among hun­dreds of thou­sands more — Union and Con­fed­er­ate, en­slaved and free — ex­tin­guished in the epic strug­gle to lib­er­ate the United States and its peo­ple from the scourge of racial slav­ery.

In de­cid­ing the fu­ture of Silent Sam, the univer­sity — and the peo­ple of North Carolina — have an op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance the un­fin­ished work of Eman­ci­pa­tion and to con­trib­ute to a reck­on­ing with his­tory that is long overdue. What­ever the out­come, this mo­ment will have last­ing con­se­quences, both for the univer­sity and for the so­ci­ety it serves.

JU­LIA WALL [email protected]­sob­server.com

A pro-Silent Sam demon­stra­tor waits out­side the Chapel Hill Court­house last Oc­to­ber af­ter de­mosntra­tors were ar­rested on the UNC campus.

JU­LIA WALL [email protected]­sob­server.com

Pro­test­ers top­pled the Silent Sam statue on Aug. 20. The de­bate is un­der­way about where to put it now.

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