Kenneth Joel Zogry: The lost historical context missing in the debate over Silent Sam

Print News and Raise Hell by Kenneth Joel ZogryToday, October 12, is University Day at UNC-Chapel Hill, and we welcome a guest post from Kenneth Joel Zogry, author of Print News and Raise Hell:  The Daily Tar Heel and the Evolution of a Modern University.

For over 125 years, the Daily Tar Heel has chronicled life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at times pushed and prodded the university community on issues of local, state, and national significance. Thousands of students have served on its staff, many of whom have gone on to prominent careers in journalism and other influential fields. Print News and Raise Hell engagingly narrates the story of the newspaper’s development and the contributions of many of the people associated with it.

Print News and Raise Hell is available in both print and ebook editions.


The lost historical context missing in the debate over Silent Sam

As we await the ultimate decision regarding the fate of Silent Sam by the UNC Board of Trustees on November 15, it is important to place the monument into its “lost” historical context.  The year 1913 has been recently marked as one of shame in UNC’s history: the monument was unveiled during commencement weekend that year, and was christened by Julian Carr with perhaps the most vile, racist and misogynistic speech ever made on Tar Heel soil.  While those facts are true, 1913 also marks the beginning of progressivism and a slow path to egalitarianism at the nation’s oldest public university, which is little understood today and wholly ignored in the fierce public debate over the statue’s meaning in the 21st century.

Interestingly, 1913 was the exact mid-point in the century between the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the zenith of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in 1963 (the March on Washington and President Kennedy’s introduction of the Civil Rights Act, which would become law in 1964).   Coincidentally, several events in 1913 signaled the start of the university’s progressive activism, alternately celebrated and condemned in our politically and socially bi-polar “purple” state. Most notably and relevant to this discussion, in 1913 a few of UNC’s faculty and students first began questioning the South’s racial prejudices, including white-on-black violence, social and economic discrimination, and political disfranchisement.  These actions were small and slow at first, but at any level should be viewed as the antithesis of the intentions of those people associated with UNC who erected the Confederate Soldiers Monument – mostly aged alumni, white supremacist state leaders, and the outgoing university president, Francis Venable.

So how, in fact, was the monument received in 1913, not by those who erected it but by students and faculty of the era?  It is fascinating to note that students greeted the formal dedication of the monument not with fanfare and stories of glorious cavaliers of old, but with a collective shrug.  Clearly most saw it as a symbol of the past, represented in a physical sense by the fact that the bronze soldier faced away from them, turning his back toward campus.  The yearbook, the Yackety Yack, did include a full-page photograph of the new monument, surrounded by the names of presumably alumni who served, but pointedly there was no additional commentary.  The campus newspaper, The Tar Heel, barely mentioned the unveiling and dedication, including only one brief sentence in a lengthy article about upcoming commencement activities.  Though the monument had been lauded in a front-page story in 1910 when it was publicly announced, three years later the students’ attention had turned elsewhere.  In fact, the big story in the same 1913 issue of the newspaper excitedly described in detail the formal dedication and opening of brand-new Peabody Hall, a modern edifice to house the burgeoning state-of-the-art School of Education.  UNC and its alumni were key players in the creation of a modern statewide public education system, begun after the Civil War to replace the locally-run one-room schoolhouses of the antebellum era with up-to-date graded schools boasting centralized curricula and professionally trained teachers – a concerted effort to make North Carolina a leader in the “New South” by preparing post-war generations for a new economy and a new urbanizing world.

Most significantly in 1913, UNC alumnus and English professor Edward Kidder Graham replaced Francis Venable as president of the university, and in an early speech spoke of a new age, declaring: “We hope to make the campus co-extensive with the boundaries of the state.”  In his inaugural address, Graham laid out his vision. The university, he stated, is “an organism at the heart of the living democratic state, interpreting its life, not by parts, nor a summary of parts, but wholly fusing them all into a new culture center, giving birth to a new humanism.”   For the first time, UNC’s mission was expanded to not only educate enrolled white students, but to be of service to all the state’s citizens. This philosophy built upon Progressive Era ideals about the role of government agencies to provide infrastructure for the public good, including quality free schools, sanitation and health care, and supporting workers’ rights including ending child labor practices.  To put these plans into action, Graham laid the foundations for a major university expansion to include schools and departments of social work, public health, and journalism, among others, before his untimely death in 1918 (at age 42, a victim of the Influenza Pandemic).

Under the auspices of the campus YMCA, Graham brought rural economist Eugene C. Branson to UNC to speak in 1913, setting off a new generation of scholars and students who began to incrementally challenge Jim Crow.  Though he was not a proponent of civil rights, and though he did not advocate full social and political equality between the races, Branson did promote what he termed “social justice” for African Americans and openly questioned the unfair economic treatment of blacks by whites in the South.  He became a UNC faculty member in 1914, and in 1916 went a step further in racial social justice by boldly organizing a conference on campus condemning the alarming rise in lynching of African Americans by white mobs – a risky public challenge to white supremacy at the time (four years later, in 1920, UNC trustees would vote to name the next new classroom building for former KKK leader William Saunders; lynching was stock-in-trade for the KKK).

Inspired by Branson’s lectures and ideas, students involved with the campus YMCA took action and in 1914 began surveys to research and improve sanitation conditions in Chapel Hill’s underserved black communities.  Most remarkably, recognizing the vast racial inequity of public education, in 1915 the YMCA students began operating local “Negro Night Schools” at which volunteer university faculty provided instruction in English, mathematics, and hygiene, and even offered lessons in history and debating – in defiance of the purposefully underfunded and limited public education provided for African Americans by the state’s white supremacist leaders.  President Graham’s young cousin, recent UNC graduate and then director of the campus YMCA, Frank Porter Graham, spearheaded the Negro Night School effort.  The younger Graham later went on to be one of the most famous presidents in UNC history, and supported African American civil and political rights in the mid 20th century.

Those who know UNC history will be well familiar with the efforts beginning in 1920 by the newly established Institute for Research in Social Science, and the recently formed UNC Press, to increasingly question Jim Crow and white supremacy in the South (led by academics Howard Odum, Rupert Vance, Arthur Raper, Guy Johnson and Guion Griffis Johnson, to name a few).  But it was men like Edward Kidder Graham, Eugene Branson, and Frank Porter Graham who, beginning in 1913 – the same year the monument was erected – formed the first footbridge away from white supremacy at UNC, and pioneered the academic environment in which the post World War I generation of scholars and students could more openly challenge Jim Crow and racial and socio-economic inequality in all its forms.

The Confederate Soldiers Monument, erected half-a-century after the Civil War, was a symbol of racism and a shameful period of 20th century American history in which citizens of color were treated as separate and unequal.  The university and our world are better off now that it has been removed from its place of prominence. But the historical context of the birth of a new direction for the University of North Carolina at that same moment has both positive and current meaning, and should be remembered and celebrated as much as the statue has been reviled.


Kenneth Joel Zogry, Ph.D., is a public historian and researches and writes extensively about UNC history.  You can read his previous UNC Press blog posts here.