CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Eve, the board of the University of North Carolina System announced that it would give $2.5 million to a neo-Confederate organization to acquire and house a monument known as “Silent Sam.”
The monument, topped by a statue of a Confederate soldier carrying a rifle, was erected at the entrance of the University of North Carolina campus here in 1913. A manifestation of simplistic nostalgia for Southern white supremacy, it was one of scores of such monuments erected at the height of the Jim Crow era, and it was paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and university benefactors. At the dedication, one speaker celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and bragged that he had “horsewhipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.”
After years of protest, Silent Sam was pulled off its pedestal during a rally in August 2018. Since then, the university has hidden the statue in a secret location. The Daughters of the Confederacy recently handed over ownership to the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, which made clear that it intended to sue the university for control of the statue. Before it could, several members of the university system’s board, each appointed by the conservative state legislature, announced that not only would the group get the statue, but it would also get access to $2.5 million to be placed in a trust for the “care and preservation of the monument.”
The board, and the university, claim that the settlement avoids a nasty legal battle and ensures that Silent Sam will no longer sit on school grounds. But legal details aside, how do you make a deal with a group that valorizes something so morally abhorrent as the Confederacy?
Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans claim that these monuments are merely emblems of Southern history. But they are so much more than that. They are propaganda. They were not erected by neutral students of history, but by people who warped it to promote white supremacy.
Operating in an era of black disfranchisement, neo-Confederate groups placed their monuments in public spaces, often using public funds, to reinforce their Civil War mythologies, characterizing the Old (white) South as the victim and arguing that all fault in the “War Between the States” lay with the North.
They also insisted — and continue to do so — that the war itself was never about slavery but transgressions related to tariffs, “states’ rights” or some generic Northern wrongdoing. These groups used to be incredibly influential; their ceremonies and relics were supported by millions of public dollars.
The lessons they taught influenced entire generations who grew up with distorted histories of the antebellum South and the Civil War. One book on the Klan and the Reconstruction era, published in 1913 and endorsed by both the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, claimed:
No unbiased student of history can fail to admit that the conditions of the times called for organized effort, to take offices out of incompetent and mischievous hands, to protect the women of the South from brutal assault, and to maintain the supremacy of the white race.
Fortunately, historians in the post-Jim Crow era have worked to set the record straight. In recent years, historians of the American South, myself included, have been called on to help the public understand the meanings of these Confederate monuments that still dot our landscapes. Most academics revel at the opportunity to serve a public that is hungry for knowledge, but we lack resources, especially time, money and a critical mass of talent.
The University of North Carolina, my employer, has its own thickly threaded history with slavery, involving thousands of enslaved people whose lives and labor built and maintained several buildings on campus. Other institutions, including Harvard, William & Mary and the University of Virginia, have made multimillion-dollar commitments to study their institutions’ connections to slavery. And yet our administrators have repeatedly rejected scholarly efforts to uncover that history, claiming a shortage of funds.
So it is especially galling to see the board give $2.5 million to a neo-Confederate organization. It is the clear endorsement of a discredited and dangerous idea. The Confederacy groups are not purveyors of truth; they are promoting a narrative that pollutes contemporary American historical memory and bolsters modern-day white supremacists. Their websites still push old falsehoods about the Civil War as a fight for Southern “liberty and freedom” and slavery’s inconsequential role in the “War Between the States.”
By funneling money to neo-Confederate organizations, the university undermines decades of scholarship and the research conducted by its own experts The Sons of Confederate Veterans is losing members and resources as its credibility continues to diminish; the university’s $2.5 million will fatten an existing endowment of less than $80,000. As the group’s leader stated in a celebratory email, this “major strategic victory” will help provide “legal and financial support for our continued and very strong actions in the future.”
Amid these costly wars over our history, where are the resources for those whose memories have actually been erased? Some of them lie buried on our campus. Three miles down the hill from where Silent Sam once stood, a university-owned conference center operates on an old plantation. Out back, just beyond the edge of the garden, sits an old cemetery filled with an estimated 100 black bodies in unmarked graves.
As people who have actually been forgotten by history lie entombed and unrecognized on our campus, it is nothing short of revolting to learn of an institution of higher learning donating $2.5 million to those who would rebuild the Confederacy.
William Sturkey (@william_sturkey), an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in the history of race in the American South, is the author of “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.