Hannah Gill: Silent Sam in Carolina del Norte

The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina, Revised and Expanded Second EditionToday we welcome a guest post from Hannah Gill, author of the new revised and expanded edition of The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina:  New Roots in the Old North State, just published by UNC Press.

Now thoroughly updated and revised—with a new chapter on the Dreamer movement and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA)—Hannah Gill’s book offers North Carolinians a better understanding of their Latino neighbors, illuminating rather than enflaming debates on immigration. In the midst of a tumultuous political environment, North Carolina continues to feature significant in-migration of Mexicans and Latin Americans from both outside and inside the United States. Drawing on the voices of migrants as well as North Carolinians from communities affected by migration, Gill explains how larger social forces are causing demographic shifts, how the state is facing the challenges and opportunities presented by these changes, and how migrants experience the economic and social realities of their lives.

The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina is available now in both print and ebook editions.

###

Silent Sam in Carolina del Norte

The Silent Sam upheaval this fall at UNC Chapel Hill coincided with an international visit from four Mexican colleagues, all oral historians and community organizers who work in Mexico City and Guanajuato. This group has formed strong connections to North Carolina in recent years as more people from Latin American countries settle in the state and we have worked together on several binational projects. It is always an honor to host them when they visit UNC, especially as they have supported numerous learning opportunities for my students (and me) in Mexico over the years.

My colleagues arrived in early September just a couple weeks after protesters toppled the statue on August 20, following years of controversy. On the first day of their visit, they went to McCorkle Place to take photos, unaware the statue was gone. They were surprised to find an empty space where Silent Sam once stood. “We wondered where he was,” they later told me.

I was curious about what the statue meant to my colleagues. We often hear many of the same narratives in various local, state, and national media, that for some Silent Sam is a remembrance of their ancestors who fought in the U.S. Civil War; for others, he is a symbol of racism, slavery, and oppression in the United States that persists in many forms to this day. Of course, there are many more perspectives (for example, see the op-ed by Malinda Maynor Lowery, member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe).

Silent Sam in Norte Carolina raises major historical issues for us all. We can better learn about these perspectives when our public institutions support bilingual and foreign language education, when we teach our children to listen and value the stories that come from our own and other families, when local and state governments are representative of our populace, and when decisions about how we preserve and document our history are democratic.

But how might the perspectives of people with Mexican heritage (which include more than 530,000 North Carolinians) expand our understanding about Silent Sam, and by extension, our history? My colleagues’ visit sparked a series of conversations about the monument with Chapel Hill friends and neighbors. For some, Confederate monuments are an unsettling reminder of how pro-Confederate and neo-Nazi groups have embraced the anti-immigrant cause in recent decades.

Others, particularly those who grew up in the Mexican educational system, connect Silent Sam not only to the U.S. Civil War and its aftermath, but also to an earlier war that Sam’s father would have fought: the U.S. invasion and war with Mexico between 1846 and 1848. This war devastated Mexico and cost the country a third of its territory (now New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado). The annexation of Mexican land expanded slavery in the decades leading up to Southern secession and added to the size of the Confederacy. The U.S.-Mexico war was also significant as the proving ground for the young soldier Robert E. Lee, who eventually became the General-in-chief of the Confederate forces.

The U.S.-Mexico war is particularly important to North Carolinians from Guanajuato, Vera Cruz, and other states in Central Mexico (the origin of most Mexicans living in NC), many of whose ancestors left their homeland because of devastation from this war, which killed thousands and destroyed the country’s railroad and agricultural infrastructure. Political chaos after the war sparked more conflict leading up to the Mexican Revolution, another humanitarian catastrophe that precipitated emigration. In the early 1900s, as the United Daughters of the Confederacy petitioned the University of North Carolina to erect Silent Sam, Mexican war refugees were coming to the United States through government recruiting programs to build railroads and harvest crops.  The same migrant recruitment strategies continue in the southeast U.S. 150 years later and are a primary reason that more than half a million people of Mexican descent now call North Carolina home.

What my colleagues did not see during their visit was an even more potent symbol of the U.S. invasion of Mexico: a bronze statue of James K. Polk. He belonged to the UNC class of 1818, was a slaveholder, and initiated the invasion of Mexico soon after winning the U.S. presidency in 1845.  In correspondence with my colleagues after their visit, they sent me articles about the history of the U.S.-Mexico war (in one, I read how rebel sympathizers were called “polkos” in Mexico during the war). Until recently, James Polk stood only a few feet away from Silent Sam in the rotunda of the Morehead Planetarium. He was placed there in 1997 to commemorate the 204th anniversary of the university. In 2015, Polk and his granite base were removed and placed in storage due to a renovation. But we still have “Polk Place,” the most popular quad on campus, to remind anyone who went to elementary school in Mexico that they are now in the heartland of the “polkos.”

Of course, there are many other perspectives from North Carolinians who identify as Mexican or Mexican-American. Like the United States, Mexico has a multiplicity of people, places, languages, experiences, and identities. In global North Carolina, a place deeply connected to Mexico in past and present, these perspectives enrich everyone’s history and illuminate connections that some of us may not have seen or heard. Included in the “us” are all the U.S.-born young people growing up in the South today with parents and grandparents from neighboring Mexico, as well as other parts of the world.

Silent Sam in Norte Carolina raises major historical issues for us all. We can better learn about these perspectives when our public institutions support bilingual and foreign language education, when we teach our children to listen and value the stories that come from our own and other families, when local and state governments are representative of our populace, and when decisions about how we preserve and document our history are democratic.

###

Anthropologist Hannah Gill is associate director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas and research associate at the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  You can read her previous UNC Press Blog posts here.