Remember Silent Sam: Student activists head back to campus more determined than ever to address racism

By Lily Jackson
Reckon staff writer

In the coming days, Reckon will take a state-by-state look at how colleges and universities are bracing for a surge of new of new activism as students, emboldened by the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, force their schools to confront the racism of the past and push for a more inclusive future. 

Silent Sam came down in seconds. The legal battle that raged after the students covered the bronze figure with North Carolina dirt still presses on years later. 

In 2018, a statement from top officials at the University of North Carolina called the toppling of the memorial, a likeness of a Confederate soldier, “unlike any previous event on our campus.” By all accounts, Silent Sam’s removal eventually resulted in the resignation of the university’s chancellor as well as millions in potential monetary losses.

It served as a watershed moment in the fight to remove symbols of the Confederacy. 

Now, in 2020, students across the Southeast, particularly at predominantly white institutions, press campus leaders: Why have so many markers named for men with Confederate and Ku Klux Klan ties stood for so long? 

In recent months, as Black Lives Matter protests have gripped American cities in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, new energy has sprung up to remove monuments to men who fought to preserve slavery. 

On June 10, the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy, on Monument Avenue was torn down by activists in Richmond. The mayor of Birmingham, Ala., pleaded with protesters attempting to bring down a monument in a local park. Protesters blocked Nashville’s Broadway, an iconic street lined with entertainment venues, pressing for the fall of a monument to local Confederate hero Sam Davis

Universities know these battles will spill over onto campuses. Already, university public-relations offices across the South have issued official statements of support for their African American students and faculty. 

Several have gone farther. For example, the University of Alabama took down three Confederate memorial plaques near the campus library, which bears a name associated with the Confederacy. Protesters in Athens, Ga,,. are calling for the removal of a monument near the University of Georgia’s historic Arch. Meanwhile, at the University of Mississippi, plans to move an on-campus Confederate monument had stalled, but the state’s college board recently approved its removal.

Student-led petitions have been drawn up at almost all SEC schools over the last two weeks calling for the renaming of racist namesakes and the removal of monuments to the Confederacy. 

Guy Mount, an assistant professor of history at Auburn University, said the petitions are just a start. 

“Higher education should prepare for a revolution,” he said. “It will deepen and extend. (Universities) aren’t going to be able to sweep this under the carpet. The monuments are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Historians like Mount note academia’s inextricable tie to slavery. In “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” author Craig Steven Wilder, provides one of the most comprehensive examinations of slavery in American higher education. Specifically, Wilder outlines the clear ties between the rise of the American college system and the slave trade that fueled its wealth. 

“The academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage,” Wilder writes. 

Dr. Hilary Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of “Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South,” expects the urgency of today’s movement to provoke more action than Southern campuses have ever seen because the students fighting for their wishes are doing so with renewed vigilance.

But connections run deep. The University of the South, for example, in Sewanee, Tenn., is wholly a relic of The Lost Cause, an interpretation of the Civil War that romanticizes the “Old South” and the Confederacy drafted and sewn into the fabric of society by former generals.

 “What are they going to do?” Green asked, referring to Sewanee.

Again, the case of North Carolina’s Silent Sam episode could foreshadow some answers. 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began receiving requests and demands to take down the highly controversial monument of Silent Sam in 2018 following extensive protests in Charlottesville, when white supremacists killed at least one person. The debates had brewed for decades before the monument fell, said Andy Thomason, senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, adding that the years of legal push-and-pull could have been avoided. 

“Campus administrators need to take demands seriously and literally,” Thomason, also the former editor of the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s independent student newspaper, said. 

In the meantime, university administrators are also working to reassure students amid the coronavirus pandemic, Thomason said. Striking a balance between those two priorities is important for public perception.

“If you are a big state school and you are rushing students back to campus, but you are slow to remove your Confederate monuments, what are you saying to your students?” he said. 

Words alone will not satisfy, Thomason said. But higher education administrators — especially those in Republican-led states — must be willing to face the consequences of following the demands of student activists, he said. 

The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a list of monuments, buildings and streets associated with Confederate figures.

Lily Jackson is a reporter for Reckon. She can be reached on Twitter at @lilygjack or by email at

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