In the latest of a series of administrative and boardroom dramas that have played out like a soap opera, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced her plans to both eradicate the last vestiges of a controversial Confederate memorial from the school’s campus and, following that, to quit her post.
Chancellor Carol Folt’s announcement came as a stunning reproach to her bosses on the UNC Board of Governors, which met this week to decide whether she would continue as the university’s top administrator. In fact, it was as the board were in the middle of these deliberations that Folt sent out her letter of resignation, while ordering workers to remove the base that once propped up Silent Sam, a toppled Confederate statue that has roiled the Chapel Hill campus with a series of demonstrations and protests.
In her resignation letter, Folt noted she was taking a step that would be unpopular with those who wanted to keep the memorial on campus. “While I recognize that some may not agree with my decision to remove the base and tablets now, I am confident this is the right one for our community – one that will promote public safety, enable us to begin the healing process and renew our focus on our great mission,” she wrote.
Folt maintained that the total removal of the memorial was imperative on the grounds that any remnants of the statue posed “continuing threat to both the personal safety and well-being our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment.”
At about 1 a.m. Tuesday, in the early morning darkness, work crews lifted the heavy granite pedestal from its moorings on the campus’ McCorkle Place, placed it on a flatbed truck and spirited it to an undisclosed storage facility. A small crowd watched the unfolding scene as a battery of police stood by to prevent any disruptions, arresting one man — 39-year-old Gary Williamson — for interfering with the workers.
Last August, on the eve of the first day of classes, a group of student protesters and community activists pulled Silent Sam from its base, leaving university officials to debate the eventual fate of the remaining memorial, which had stood at the entrance of the campus since 1913 when it was erected as a memorial to “white supremacy.”
At its dedication ceremony in 1913, which took place during the university’s commencement ceremonies, Confederate Civil War veteran Julian Carr praised the statue as a memorial to white students who left the campus to serve the Confederate army as saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” In his remarks, retained by the university archives, Carr described how Silent Sam would stand in the memory of white men, like himself, who had fought for the Confederacy:
One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.
For more than a century, the statue has been a flashpoint of protests calling for its removal. But even as those waxed and waned with nearly every generation of students at the state’s flagship campus, Silent Sam stood tall through every epoch.
In recent years, however, the intensity of campus and community opposition to the monument has decidedly grown alongside a new wave of national and international antagonism toward Confederate symbolism, catalyzed in the wake of a church shooting at Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and a deadly white nationalist rally near the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
In her resignation letter, Folt said there had been “too much recent disruption due to the monument controversy” and expressed a desire to calm the waters on the Chapel Hill campus by staying on to “continue to focus on our core mission” until the end of the semester.
But that’s not to be. In a hastily arranged meeting on Tuesday, the UNC Board of Governors accepted Folt’s resignation but demanded she leave her office in the next two weeks. Instead of finishing the academic year, as she requested, the board ordered Folt to go by January 31.
The earlier departure date stems from the board’s displeasure with Folt’s surprise announcements, which occurred during a previously unplanned emergency board meeting on Monday, to discuss “personnel and legal matters.” It was during this closed-door session, ostensibly to discuss Folt’s future at the university, that Folt issued her resignation letter and plans for dismantling the monument’s base.
Sensing her time as chancellor was drawing to an end, Folt avoided having the board fire her by quitting first and, in a surprise move that upset some members of the governing board, made sure Silent Sam would leave Chapel Hill before she left town.
After the Monday board meeting ended, Chairman Harry Smith issued a statement explaining that no one on the board had any advanced knowledge of either Folt’s plan to resign or her order to remove the statue base. “We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action,” Smith’s statement said. “It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the Board’s goal to operate with class and dignity. We strive to ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are always involved and that we are always working in a healthy and professional manner.”
In what looks to have been a retaliatory move, the board called another meeting Tuesday morning at which they accepted Folt’s resignation, but ordered her to depart by the end of January. The upshot of all this is that, if Silent Sam ever rises again, it will be the UNC Board of Governors’ who’ll deliberately own the decision to resurrect anew a monument to white supremacy on the school’s campus.