By Nate Rosenberger
Silent Sam has fallen. It was an exciting moment as years’ worth of students and faculty protesting and imploring to UNC came to a spirited moment of community led justice. We are waiting to see what will become of the fallen statue and whether something worthy of honoring will be put in its stead. However, with the fall of Durham’s statue on August 14th, 2017, Duke University removing their Robert E. Lee statue, and now Silent Sam’s toppling we must ask what is next for North Carolina?
Silent Sam has been the focus of energy against racist monuments years while other monuments have sat without much public uproar in the area. There are obvious reasons for this- Silent Sam was standing in the middle of a public university, a university that spent $390,000 to protect that racism. The arrest of activist and comrade Maya Little after she poured her own blood and ink on the statue, dying it red for the blood that it represents. This kept the attention on the statue and stopped the issue from falling into obscurity. Yet there is still much work to be done in removing the racist memorials that surround us in North Carolina.
In Greensboro we have our own statue, less prominently placed than Silent Sam but no less insulting to anyone who thinks that owning another human is a despicable practice. The statue is of a common Confederate foot soldier resting his hands on his musket; proudly flying behind the soldier, in a graveyard where no other flags fly, is the Confederate flag. No, not the “rebel” battle flag popularized by the KKK but the actual flag of the Confederate States of America. This statue is in Green Hills Cemetery and was erected in 1888, only twenty-three years after the war was ended. This copper statue’s stated purpose was to memorialize the approximated 300 unknown Confederate soldiers who were buried in a mass grave at that location. It was sponsored by the Ladies’ Memorial Association(LMA), an innocuous name for a nefarious organization of wealthy white women that sought to propagate the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” rhetoric. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) trace their lineage back to the LMA and it is the Daughters of the Confederacy that have been credited by historians like Caroline E. Janney for “transform[ing] military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states’ rights and white supremacy remained intact”.
There has been little push to remove the Greensboro statue over the years, owing to the belief that a graveyard is an appropriate place to honor the dead Confederates. In 1969, the gun and hands of the statue were broken off due to a period of civil rights activism, but quickly replaced thanks to the large wallet of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SVC). The problem is that this statue is not solely meant to mark a mass grave just like every Confederate statue is not what people on the Right like to claim. This statue was part of a test. In 1888 when the statue was erected there were only three other Confederate statues in NC, all of them in grave yards as many thought it would be too bold to place them more openly. At the time, the Jim Crow laws were not yet legalized by the Plessy Vs. Ferguson supreme court decision. These graveyard statues were not met with any backlash federally and the LMA and UDC continued to erect statues in more public places eventually booming in the early 1900’s when Jim Crow was in full swing.
Winston-Salem has a statue of its own. It also depicts an unnamed Confederate foot soldier whose hands rest calmly on his weapon yet, unlike Greensboro’s, it stands in front of the old courthouse of Forsyth County. It was erected in 1905 when that courthouse was still being used for mock justice instead of being luxury apartments with a nice view of a Jim Crow era monument as they are now. The statue was paid for by the UDC to tower over the courthouses square, mocking all black people who had to attend that courthouse in search of justice. It has inscriptions on all sides of its base, but it is the inscription on the rear that contains the most telling script:
SLEEPING, BUT GLORIOUS
DEAD IN FAME’S PORTAL
DEAD BUT VICTORIOUS
DEAD BUT IMMORTAL
THEY GAVE US GREAT GLORY
WHAT MORE COULD THEY GIVE?
THEY LEFT US A STORY,
A STORY TO LIVE!
A story of racism, genocide, and the enslavement of other humans.
There is a movement in Winston-Salem to move the statue, it is led by Mayor Allen Joines who told the Winston-Salem Journal that he is trying to get the UDC to move it to the Salem Cemetery, where 36 Confederate soldiers are buried. This is made difficult since the Republicans passed a bill in 2015 that made the removal of Confederate statues illegal and limits moving said statues. Additionally, this only puts the Winston-Salem statue in the same situation as the statue in Greensboro.
It is important to note that these statues were not the first monuments to the confederacy, there were small obelisks and other monuments erected directly after the war ended. The difference in a statue verses a simple marker is that a statue requires no placard or sign to tell you what it is. That is the inherent benefit a statue gives, no matter how illiterate or uninformed you may be a statue is understood. It is why the UDC made statues their priority in the early 1900’s as Jim Crow laws legalized the dehumanization of citizens of color. The space that a statue occupies is important, in the south we see them in front of courts, the state capitol building, universities, and always in places that require people to pass them. To force passersby to observe the statue and the white supremacy it represents. These statues are built to tower over passerby’s and assert dominance over those who see it. That is why in 1984 the statue in Greensboro was raised another four feet. It is why Silent Sam and the Confederate monument in Winston Salem stand at roughly 12 feet tall. The height and prominence of these statues is to make these figures unassailable, occupying spaces that diminish any thoughts of equality and fair treatment.
The Green Hills Cemetery and Salem Cemetery were both segregated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For years thousands of Greensboro residents were unable to bury their dead in this cemetery that is conveniently located close to downtown, a cemetery that glorifies the regime that would see them in chains. The Greensboro statue marks the grave of 300 Confederate soldiers and many would protest at the idea that they do not deserve a statue. Many now would argue that everyone deserves a marker for their burial. Yet we do not see statues to the countless number of dead slaves who received no burial of any kind. We do not have statues to remember the slaves who were simply thrown overboard when they died of starvation and disease on their forced voyage to the United States. We do not honor those dead with statues, yet we are supposed to let this statue remain intact.
So, what should happen to the statues here in the Triad? These statues should not be placed in graveyards where they can still dominate the space where people of all backgrounds come to mourn their dead. They should be disposed of, and if any monument is necessary to mark the graves of the Confederate dead then let it be something that cannot dominate the spaces where they are. A marker that actively requires reading and understanding of why that marker is there instead of brazenly glorifying the racism and genocide that the Confederate States of America stood for and that the UDC, LMA, and SVC have so carefully tried to obscure.
Nate Rosenberger is an organizer in Greensboro.