Signature Experience: The fate of a UNC Confederate statue

The Summer Signature Experience at Peddie enables students to spend the summer before their senior year pursuing their passion. A faculty mentor guides each student in developing the concept, goal and execution of the project. For her Signature Experience, Regan '19 interned at the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of the American South, where she researched legal avenues for the removal of a Confederate statue on campus.

His name was Silent Sam. Both the life-long and four-year residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina silently resigned themselves to his century-long presence on their campus. Nobody is sure why he was silent, but there was no question as to why the United Daughters of the Confederacy gave him a home at the university’s most visible entrance. I first came to know Sam this summer through a woman named Omololu, whom I never met. Unbeknownst to me, his stony gaze watched me walk to my internship at UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South every morning for days before I even knew he existed. His was an inconspicuous presence until I became aware of it, and suddenly my morning commute could not escape his reminders of a painful past.

My first assignment at the Center was to edit­ interview transcripts for their Southern Oral History Program. Six days, five Grubhub or­ders, and four transcripts into my time in North Carolina, I was editing with a confident rhythm as my fingers played in the keys of backspace, delete, find and replace. Omololu Babatunde was one of many students sworn to the cause of evicting Sam, but at first, she was just another interview to scour for misspelled names and too many "ums." In immediate respects, Omololu and I could not be more different. I was not an African American student mobilizing activ­ists and my grandfather was not born under South African apartheid. I could not expound on the geography of spatial constructs and its ap­plications to organizing protests, raising resis­tance, and getting Sam off her campus. I was convinced I had no access to understanding her experiences, just as I cannot imagine how it feels to be a newborn or eighty years old. I have no barometer to compare.

UNC Wilson Library

Regan Cook ’19 visited Wilson Library on the University of North Carolina campus during her Summer Signature Experience at the Center for the American South.

Then one of the transcript’s seventy-seven pages caught my eye and threw me into a mental double-take. Omololu described her days at St. Andrew’s, a boarding school like Peddie. I remembered touring the Dela­ware campus with my brother a year prior and sitting in an auditorium for an admis­sions information session, similar to the ses­sions I sat through during my own boarding school search. Omololu described gathering in that same auditorium for the St. Andrew’s version of Community Meeting, and adjust­ing to dorm life as a shy teenager. She went on about her high school years and the same boarding school idiosyncrasies that I love about Peddie. I found the barometer I was missing. Even this tangential connection framed her incredible life story in a context that I understood. So when I continued reading Omololu’s recount of leading the stu­dent movement against a mystery man with an equally mysterious name, I felt compelled to know who on campus could be tormenting her so persistently. I was missing something, and Google filled in the blanks.

Silent Sam was not a man at all. He was one of the remaining Confederate statues on a college campus. The deaths of Martin Lu­ther King Jr. and Michael Brown, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and many racial watershed mo­ments led UNC students to protest at his feet in a long history of campus activism continued by Omololu and her classmates. I saw the Google Maps location pin right across from my daily stop at Starbucks and wondered how I could have missed such a heavy piece of history across the street. Following that day, every walk to the office consumed my thoughts with those gen­erations of students and asking myself if I should be joining them, in whatever way I could.

Every walk to the office consumed my thoughts with those generations of students and asking myself if I should be joining them, in whatever way I could.”

The returning UNC students announced that on August 20th they would follow in Omo­lolu’s steps with a demonstration of their own to remove Silent Sam. I found my chance to join in. I spent the rest of my internship help­ing write the Center’s statement of support and researching legal avenues for Sam’s removal, the cause to which I, too, had sworn myself. My work was not just editing transcripts anymore. The entire Center staff, like the rest of Chapel Hill, hoped that this round of protests would be more fruitful than those that came before it. The office atmosphere changed as our anticipation felt grounded by the importance of even the small part of supporting a student protest against the complicity of school ad­ministrators in maintaining a racist statue on a public campus. I finished my internship ten days before the protest and found myself filled with the idealism of contributing to a move­ment to change a place for the better, regard­less of the outcome.

I happened to drive back through North Carolina on August 20th before making my way home to Pennsylvania. After stopping for one last coffee at the Starbucks on Frank­lin Street, I watched this year’s crop of UNC students make new connections and embrace old friends in my temporary home of four weeks. In Pennsylvania the next night, a news headline revealed that my small contribution was irrelevant for the best possible reason. Six hours after I left Chapel Hill for the last time, before the protest even began, a band of students toppled a century-old statue at the UNC campus entrance. They silenced Sam.