In Defense of Silent Sam

After Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child molestation, the statue of his boss, revered head coach Joe Paterno was removed. The statue had been erected to honor the popular “winningest” coach in football. Once it became apparent that Paterno knew about the child abuse for years but said nothing, the university found his silence too egregious to explain away. No longer wanting to honor what he stood for, Penn State took his statue down.

That has nothing to do with the public outcry to remove statues of Confederate generals or unknown soldiers of the Civil War. Yet in opinion piece after radio call-in show after tweet storm, I hear that rationale used by those who want the statues taken down.

The Confederate statues were erected not to honor anyone but to intimidate. Granted, they are a reminder that slavery was the backbone of the Southern economy. The only way to detain people you’ve kidnapped in a life of servitude is to keep them dependent, demoralized and in fear for their lives. Some Southern property owners believed that was an acceptable tradeoff to keep the economy going, and went to war over it.

But the statues were installed during periods when whites wanted to underscore a belief in white supremacy. That crucial context undermines the argument that the statues are up solely for historical reference.

Some people now want those statues removed. The statues remind them of the horrific treatment of those of African heritage and the persistent pain of racial inequality. They don’t want to be reminded of the uglier side of humanity. Who can blame them for wanting to forget that we can be so incredibly cruel?

But especially now as the political and cultural currents take us in a direction many of us don’t want to go, we need to remember the darkness and just how deep and wide it can be. I have a strong sense of foreboding when I see some of the White House tweets, the legislative initiatives, the incomprehensible meanness toward people who are least able to fight back.

I’ve heard Chapel Hillians try to distance ourselves from some of the acts of the N.C. General Assembly, for instance, by saying, “This is not us.” We can’t afford to live in a protected bubble of liberalism. We can’t afford to erase the objectionable and pretend that we are not part of the sordidness around us.

We need always to bear in mind our capability for inflicting brutality and injustice and why it’s necessary for us to fight against it. That’s why I would argue the Confederate statues should stay, so long as we put them in context. Add plaques explaining this dark part of our history and reminding people that the Confederates, with their agenda of inhumanity, lost. Add other statues or works of art nearby that depict the struggle to redeem ourselves, something that shows “This is where we were; this is how far we’ve come; we don’t want to go back.”

We need to accept our past that gave in to the worst parts of ourselves; we need to acknowledge the long and difficult battle toward redemption. In these days in which the broader culture is urging us backwards, we need a reminder of where that path leads, and that we don’t want to go there.
— Nancy Oates

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. plurimus

     /  August 21, 2017

    Hi Nancy,

    History shows that driving symbols underground creates more instability and resentment and in some cases, idolizes something that is in fact awful. I believe that understanding the failed idea of the Confederacy and what led up to succession is critical to not repeating it. The historical context of John Wilson’s Silent Sam (created in 1911 and erected at UNC in 1913) and his Union complement Daniel Bean (also created in 1911) is lost in an emotional swirl. The truth is that Silent Sam romanticizes the “lost cause” and reconstruction and obscures the ugly history of the war and its aftermath..

    A recent piece on race relations in the NYT put the Confederate Flag in historical relief and the context is reveling and shows the importance of teaching facts rather than suppressing them. It is worth reading; “These debates over symbols show us that Confederates were conscious of facing a contradiction, one we’re still contending with today: how to communicate a political belief in both freedom for whites and slavery for blacks. The task was impossible. This moment of early white nationalism gave birth to a civic narrative with an insurmountable task — making a visual declaration of the unspeakable.” .

    I mostly agree with you, my only exception that the statues and other symbols of the Confederacy should not be sanctioned by a representative government unless they are in the context of a museum or cemetery.

  2. George Entenman

     /  August 21, 2017


    I believe that statues like Silent Sam are worth keeping where they are so long as people bother to call for their removal. IMNSHO such protests are the best possible way to teach history, especially contemporary history, as Charlottesville has shown.

    I posted my thoughts to FB and got good comments:

  3. Don Evans

     /  August 21, 2017

    “Silent Sam” is indefensible, plain and simple.

    It is shameful that we continue to debate its placement rather than removing it. It has no place on public property, and is no more acceptable at its prominent spot at the entrance to the state university’s campus than the Confederate battle flag or any other overt racist symbol. Governments that represent all the people should not be party to exhibiting statues that insult and terrorize a good number of its citizens.

    And let’s remember that the most passionate debate about keeping the statue where it stands most often comes from white folks who are not threatened by its place. I suspect that were a number of black citizens given a say in what to do with it, they would quickly offer to remove it themselves.

    The statue has no place in polite society and does not trigger debate from those who pass it by — it only serves its intended purpose: to shamelessly remind blacks of who controls public life in this country.

    If folks want to memorialize the disgraceful time in our country’s history that the statue represents, let them do it on private property or in a cemetery, just not on land that is supported by taxpayers, white and black.

    And let us not overlook or ignore — the statue represents an extremely costly act of rebellion against the U.S. government, and it memorializes the traitors who perpetrated that rebellion. Do we really want to honor such traitors?