What Academics Owe Activists: A Report on “Removing Silent Sam” at the AHA

What Academics Owe Activists: A Report on “Removing Silent Sam” at the AHA

As monuments to (and of) white supremacy, Confederate statues simultaneously re-embodied masculinity in white Southerners who failed their patriarchal society, christened future generations in Lost Cause mythology, and intimidated, punished, and policed the bodies of black Southerners.[1] It was no mistake that Confederate memorialization crested during two periods of intense racial violence and discrimination: the first during the consolidation of Jim Crow, in the 1890s through 1910s, and the second during the classical Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 1960s. This was the leitmotif of a Sunday morning session titled “Removing Silent Sam” at the recent American Historical Association meeting. Dr. Warren Milteer Jr. of UNC-Greensboro served as chair.

Dr. Adam Domby, Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston, began by sketching out the recent history of Silent Sam activism. Working with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, UNC-Chapel Hill dedicated the Confederate monument in 1913 as part of the first wave of memorialization meant to shore up Jim Crow. White supremacist Julian Carr enshrined this insidious motive in his dedication speech, which Domby located in the university’s archives in 2011. A Confederate veteran and alumnus, Carr recalled in the speech that soon after Appomattox, “I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” after she insulted a white woman.[2] This archival find coincided with the establishment of the Real Silent Sam Coalition, the progenitor of today’s movement. The Coalition created a moderate proposal that would contextualize and historicize Silent Sam through plaques and educational programming. Although administrators rejected this compromise, in 2015 activists did manage to force administrators to rename Saunders Hall—bearing the name of Klansman William Saunders—due to the fact that the Board’s own minutes revealed that it was precisely his leadership in the Klan that earned him the namesake.

The murder of Heather Heyer at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought a new urgency to the movement to take down Sam. As UNC-Chapel Hill PhD candidate and activist Alyssa Bowen reminded the audience, monuments cannot be conflated with history. In their mortar they freeze the social relations of their founding, becoming contemporary icons to likeminded white supremacists. In fact, as Bowen traced the intersection of historical events and Silent Sam activism since the 1960s, it became clear that one could anchor a course on racial discrimination and civil rights movements in America over the past century around Silent Sam alone. Bowen concluded by highlighting the wide range of racist iconography and honorifics still on campus, including thirty buildings named after white supremacists.

As Bowen observed, the continued presence of these structures on college campuses demonstrates that the fight against monuments like Silent Sam is bigger than a department, a school, a state, or even a region. To this point, Kenneth Ledford, a Germanist historian at Case Western Reserve University who attended the session, noted in the Q&A that the current debate about Confederate monuments stems from the fact that—contrary to Nazi Germany in World War II—the South never suffered a lasting total defeat. Previous scholars muzzled the likes of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Carter Woodson in favor of white academics steeped in Lost Cause mythology like William Dunning, Walter Fleming, and Ulrich B. Phillips. Consequently, there has been a slippage between the updated historiographical shifts ushered in during the 1950s and popular understandings of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In part, as Domby pointed out, this is because the plasticity of the Lost Cause provides such convenient cover for conservative attacks on social programs like affirmative action. How the public sees structural racism today hinges in large part on how it views the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow.

Defense of the Lost Cause has persistently floated above history under the cover of “free speech.” UNC-Chapel Hill PhD candidate and activist Lindsay Ayling detailed how this unfolds today. The same fascist white supremacist groups behind the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville—including the Aryan Brotherhood, the III%ers, and the League of the South—are those intimidating antiracist activists, often by violent means. Ayling shared disturbing examples of the vicious cyber harassment and police brutality she and others have suffered at the hands of these groups. Police sometimes allowed white supremacists to beat student activists with impunity. All this in the name of “free speech.”

Given the fascist groups cowering behind the First Amendment in order to attack student activists, Ayling’s presentation raised an urgent question for academics: what do we do when fascists leap off the pages of our monographs and spill onto our campus grounds? How might our scholarship and knowledge of historical context allow us to protect vulnerable populations in this fight against fascism and white supremacy? As Bowen put it, we need a clearer connection between what we do and how we live our lives.

This points to a larger issue that this panel addressed: we know these monuments reflect hate, but we fail to appreciate fully how they continue a long legacy of hostile spatial politics for students of color. Dr. Hilary Green, Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama, and an alumna of UNC, made this all too clear. As an African American, Green explained how Silent Sam’s presence feels like a personal betrayal by her alma mater. What do you do when an institution signals you are good enough for a doctorate, but then fails to understand the lasting effects of Confederate statues on campus? Or when white supremacists and their allies infiltrate and attack peaceful student activists? In one of the most effective and affective moments of the entire AHA conference, Green defiantly swore to Chancellor Carol Folt, “I will not be a silenced horse-whipped negro wench.” Green detailed how Sam marked the delineations of space that were not hers—how students of color avoided that part of campus altogether so as to escape its shadows. Confederate monuments are not a purely academic affair. Through them, the myths of the Lost Cause linger on, demanding obedience and silence from people of color.

The panel on “Removing Silent Sam” highlighted many ways scholars can support antiracist efforts, all of which remain important even in the wake of the recent resignation of Chancellor Folt and the removal of Sam’s pedestal. They can continue to teach the unequivocal truth of these statues and white supremacy. They can tweet out corrections of a falsified past. Whatever they do, they must amplify the voices of the vulnerable and exposed who dare to wrestle with a violent and dangerous legacy. On August 20, 2018, thanks to the courageous defiance of students armed with little more than moral imperative, Silent Sam fell. He crumpled like paper; now, may he boom like thunder.


[1] See, for example, LeeAnn Whites, The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995); Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).

[2] “Julian Carr’s Speech at the Dedication of Silent Sam,” Dr. Hilary N. Green, PhD, University of Alabama, accessed January 23, 2019, http://hgreen.people.ua.edu/transcription-carr-speech.html.

Alex Hofmann

Alexander Hofmann is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago studying the histories of memory, violence, and the American South. His dissertation explores a culture of disembodiment that developed in the wake of the Civil War and produced distinct forms of violence through spectacle lynching.

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