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To Understand Confederate Statues Like Silent Sam, Go to the Archives

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | August 25, 2018 | No Comment |

If you’re reading this blog, you probably know it’s been over a year since the dreadful August weekend in Charlottesville where a rally supporting Confederate monuments and white supremacy ended in injuries and deaths.* Charlottesville got many folks thinking harder about what to do with monuments associated with the Confederacy and white supremacist ideology. This week, a Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” was pulled down by students at UNC-Chapel Hill. The protestors were partly inspired by something found in an archive, and the researcher was Adam Domby, now a C of C history professor.

Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Dr. Adam Domby

Turns out #Archivesmatter. While conducting archival research as a UNC grad student, Domby found a copy of a speech that proved that the Confederate statue was intended to promote white supremacy. The proof was clear; one NC journalist in an August 24 article called the speech a “smoking gun.” (A full account of the statue’s history is in this week’s Raleigh News and Observer.) Julian Carr delivered the speech in 1913, when the statue (funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the university), was unveiled. Carr, who’d been a UNC student before becoming a Confederate soldier, praised Confederate soldiers who “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” Carr told the crowd that when he’d returned from the war, he had publicly “horse-whipped” an African American woman “until her skirts hung in shreds” because, Carr said, she had insulted a white woman (“a Southern lady”). He referred to the beating as a “pleasing duty.”

By Aug. 23, three days after the statue had come down, Domby had already been contacted by at several regional and national journalists.** When we talked, I asked how he’d come across the speech. “I figured, it’s gotta be in the [UNC] library,” he explained. “There’s a ton of folders of speeches if you look at the Julian Carr papers. I just went through them until I found it.” Doing further research, Domby was struck by 1913 news reports on the unveiling of the statue in which this speech got little coverage. “All it got was ‘Julian Carr gave a great speech about the history of the university.’  It was such an unremarkable anecdote–This is about white supremacy and I whipped someone–that they didn’t comment on it.”***

Aug. 13 2018. Photo from WUNC.

Domby decided this information needed to leave the archive and inform contemporary discourse.  “Every decade or so, someone [at UNC] would say, ‘Why don’t we tear down Silent Sam,’ and someone would reply, “It’s not about slavery, it’s about the soldiers, or, the Civil War wasn’t about slavery anyways’–and it was, just FYI. I know you know that, but I always have to make sure I say that,” Domby told me. “And it wasn’t like it was new information to me that these monuments had white supremacist connections; we knew that. But this seemed like a great way to teach people about it.”

After the newspaper published his letter, Domby was contacted by “the nascent student movement” protesting the statue, who wanted to learn more. (“These were undergrads. These were not outsiders,” Domby said. “I was very disappointed as a UNC alum that some people were saying that these protesters were outsiders. It’s like during Reconstruction when people said ‘this is just Northerners manipulating blacks, it’s outsiders.’ It’s the same excuse, and it’s shameful. And it’s a lie.”) Over the next several years, UNC students and faculty began citing Carr’s speech as part of their protests against the statue.  “The different departments that wrote letters saying they supported the student protestors, they all cite the speech. The activists really mobilized the speech in a way that I didn’t expect.”

At the time, Domby had hoped the university would choose to provide a better marker for the statue, making clear why it had been put up in 1913. North Carolina now has a law similar to South Carolina’s Heritage Act, preventing the removal of historic markers or statues without approval by the legislature. Activists had asked that UNC petition the legislature for permission to take the statue down. But little action was taken, and opposition to the statue increased. “The mayor of Chapel Hill wanted it gone. Op-eds, beat poetry, protest, signage, letters to the editor, were getting the word out that this speech existed. It’s a very hard speech to argue against. Carr’s message was that beating this woman was the right thing to do, and he said he wanted the next generation to learn this.”

Domby didn’t plan to inspire a crowd to tear down the statue on campus. “This was not an outcome I wanted,” he said. “I think the university had an opportunity a year ago to move Silent Sam into a museum, or into a cemetery or some other appropriate place where it could be properly interpreted as a product of history, and not a celebration of memory.” But by 2018, “Silent Sam didn’t have the support of the community. That’s something that’s changed in the last few years. When people literally die in Charlottesville and people literally die in Charleston, that shifts the discussion.”

August 21. 2018. Photo from WUNC.

The discussion is ongoing.  On August 23 a member of the UNC Board of Governors announced that within three months, the statue would be reinstalled “as required by state law.” This morning  (August 25) as I was writing this post, another protest was occurring on the UNC campus. As of 2 PM, there have been several arrests, but so far no serious injuries.

As Domby tweeted a couple of hours ago, “Stay safe, UNC.”


*ICYMI, attendees at the rally in Charlottesville were partly motivated by the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. They carried torches and chanted “Blood and soil” (a Nazi slogan) and “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” One man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, leaving one woman dead and 19 injured; two state police working to maintain order that weekend were also killed in a helicopter crash.

**Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, Raleigh News & Observer, Charleston Post & Courier. I probably missed a few.

***You can now view Carr’s speech yourself in Documenting the American South. An expert transcription by Dr. Hilary Green is here.

under: Markers, Monuments, Racial Disparities, Research Projects, Social Activism in the South, Southern Studies Faculty in the News

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