The Confederate monument to end all Confederate monuments stands guard over the de facto entrance to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Silent Sam, as the monument is called, is in the middle of the campus quad that adjoins Chapel Hill’s main street, called Franklin Street. The prominent Sam, available to student and passersby alike, watched over the arrival of G.I. Bill students, the first astronauts, the famous Speaker Ban protests in the 1960s, six national basketball championship street celebrations including this year’s, multiple generations of students running up to town for a quick bite for lunch … and countless snickers when naive freshmen were let in on The Joke.
The 1913 UNC-Chapel Hill monument to university Confederates in the Civil War lost some dignity and solemnity when The Joke was perpetuated upon it.
I strain but just can’t remember who let me in on The Joke as a newly arrived teen after leaving the hometown so many years ago. While giving my 15-year-old grandson a tour of the old campus in 2016 I struggled within on whether to spill the beans as the two of us passed Silent Sam, who stands poised with rifle at the ready.
I spilled the beans.
The joke on Silent Sam — told as far back as 1937 and probably long before — is that he fires his gun when a virgin passes. The 15-year-old jerked his head, his eyes grew wide and in disbelief replied, “Really?”
Whether it was a moment of rite of passage, only the 15-year-old can say. I can say that it was a moment of connection between grandpa and grandson that I told him not to repeat back home.
He repeated it. As soon as he got back home.
Generations of Tar Heel students cloaked a contentious and painful reminder of history in the heart of campus with a bit of locker-room humor. Following a quick, cockeyed glance, students then proceeded to ignore Silent Sam for four years or more and the troubles he represented.
But humor gets old and new generations found nothing funny about the statue that had been cloaked in near invisibility by a frat-party-style joke. Confederate monuments have fallen out of favor in this 21st Century. Even the one that had gained peculiar favor in the hearts of so many old alumni for a reason far removed from the War Between The States.
In recent times various groups at various times have staged well-publicized protests at the monument, and various vandals have desecrated poor ol’, defenseless Sam.
Finally a couple of weeks ago the Chapel Hill mayor called Sam, who never fired a shot, “a clear and present danger” and asked for the monument’s removal.
“It is in the interest of the Town as well as the University,” wrote Mayor Pam Hemminger in a letter to the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor. The reason: “to avert what could become a situation that could easily get out of hand.”
Then the governor weighed in, saying all Confederate monuments, including Sam, should come down.
The university responded that its Sam will stay because of a 2015 state law that restricts removing monuments. Student groups vowed daily protests.
There are two sides to every story, they say. Actually, there are as many sides as there are people who have them.
Here’s one: We struggle to know, understand and empathize with those who lived through the trauma of the Civil War.
In another 150 years another generation may well similarly struggle to know and understand this generation and why we joked about such a thing as Silent Sam. As well as why we so summarily dismissed him.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.