In Defense of Keeping Silent Sam

Silent Sam

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University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman is in favor of keeping the statue on campus.  He writes in the wake of the UNC-Chapel Hill administration’s decision not to build a special interpretive center for the statue.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Chronicle of the Higher Education: “Historians Should End Silence on Silent Sam“:

The Confederate statue known as Silent Sam is a monument to white supremacy, so it should be removed from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Right?

Wrong. It’s precisely because the statue embodies white supremacy that it should remain on the campus, in a history center that tells its full and hateful story. And my fellow historians should be the first people to say that.

Alas, we’ve gone mostly silent on the removal of Silent Sam. Historians have carefully exposed the racist roots of such Confederate memorials, which were typically erected in the early 20th century to burnish slavery and buttress Jim Crow. But when Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Carol L. Folt, proposed that Silent Sam be placed in a new history center, sparking protest by students and faculty members, few members of our guild rallied to her side. And late last week, when the UNC Board of Governors voted down Folt’s plan, most of us kept quiet.

Even worse, some historians embraced the attack on the proposed history center. In a statement last week, the National Council on Public History argued that placing Silent Sam on display “threatens to discourage open dialogue about the white-supremacist history” of the monument and about “the negative effects of its continued presence on members of the UNC community.”

Come again? Putting Silent Sam out of sight will also put him out of mind, suppressing rather than promoting the kind of “open dialogue” that the council hails. And ultimately that will have negative effects for the entire UNC community, including its minority members.

I understand and respect that many minorities at UNC denounced the history center, arguing that a racist symbol like Silent Sam has no place anywhere on the campus. But I think they’re wrong, and the best way to show respect for them is to explain why. Anything less isn’t respect; it’s condescension.

Read the rest here.

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