In Protest of a Confederate Monument, UNC Teaching Assistants Refuse To File Grades

Michael Arria

Student protestors stand in front of where the Silent Sam statue once stood on the campus of the University of North Carolina campus on August 30, 2018. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)

Almost 80 teach­ing assis­tants are on a grade strike at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill (UNC), refus­ing to dis­trib­ute their stu­dents’ final marks until the school aban­dons a pro­posed plan to con­struct a build­ing to house an infa­mous Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment. The strike is the colu­mi­na­tion of a year of protests against the racist symbol.

Silent Sam is a stat­ue of a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier that was erect­ed on UNC’s cam­pus in 1913 by a white-suprema­cist group called the Unit­ed Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­a­cy. Its sup­port­ers claim that the stat­ue is sim­ply a trib­ute to sol­diers. But, in fact, the stat­ue was erect­ed years after the Civ­il War end­ed, as a mon­u­ment to the racial apartheid of the Jim Crow era.

Not­ed white suprema­cist and for­mer UNC trustee Julian Carr gave a speech in 1913 at the ini­tial ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mo­ny for Silent Sam, prais­ing the racist vio­lence that flour­ished after the war. The present gen­er­a­tion, I am per­suad­ed, scarce­ly takes note of what the Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier meant to the wel­fare of the Anglo Sax­on race dur­ing the four years imme­di­ate­ly suc­ceed­ing the war, when the facts are, that their courage and stead­fast­ness saved the very life of the Anglo Sax­on race in the South,” said Carr. He added, today, as a con­se­quence the purest strain of the Anglo Sax­on is to be found in the 13 South­ern States – Praise God.”

UNC stu­dents have been protest­ing the exis­tence of the Silent Sam stat­ue for the last 50 years. After Mar­tin Luther King Jr. was assas­si­nat­ed in 1968, stu­dents threw paint on the mon­u­ment and tagged it with graf­fi­ti. The mon­u­ment was the site of numer­ous protests by the Black Stu­dent Move­ment dur­ing the 1970s, and in 1981 the mon­u­ment was van­dal­ized dur­ing the Nation­al Col­le­giate Ath­let­ic Asso­ci­a­tion bas­ket­ball finals.

On April 30 of this year, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in his­to­ry, Maya Lit­tle, was arrest­ed after paint­ing Silent Sam red and dous­ing it with her own blood. Lit­tle released a state­ment explain­ing that she did this to help con­tex­tu­al­ize the stat­ue and call out the school’s Chan­cel­lor Car­ol Folt for refus­ing to lis­ten to pro­test­ers’ con­cerns. We see the muti­la­tion of black bod­ies, the degra­da­tion of black peo­ple, the cel­e­bra­tion of an army that fought for our ances­tors’ enslave­ment,” reads Little’s state­ment. I see Julian Carr whip­ping a black woman. I see your will­ing­ness to trau­ma­tize, dehu­man­ize, and endan­ger every black per­son on this cam­pus. We see our blood and now you will too.”

In August, 250 pro­tes­tors top­pled Silent Sam while chant­i­ng, We believe that we will win!”

The stat­ue hasn’t been put back up since it was knocked down. But on Decem­ber 3, UNC’s board and Chan­cel­lor Folt released a pro­posed plan to return Silent Sam to the cam­pus: The mon­u­ment would be put in a brand-new build­ing that would cost $5 mil­lion to con­struct and $800,000 a year to keep up.

Up until recent­ly, Samuel Fines­ur­rey was a teach­ing assis­tant at UNC, and he is cur­rent­ly help­ing the strik­ing staff. He has par­tic­i­pat­ed in the resis­tance to Silent Sam for over a year. We have one demand,” he told In These Times. Get rid of the pro­pos­al. We’re hop­ing the action embar­rass­es the uni­ver­si­ty and they should be embarrassed.”

In response to the grade strike, the school’s Exec­u­tive Vice Chan­cel­lor and Provost Bob Blouin sent an email through­out the cam­pus accus­ing the teach­ing assis­tants of vio­lat­ing their stu­dents’ rights and claim­ing that the action is wide­ly opposed. The uni­ver­si­ty has received stu­dent and par­ent com­plaints,” reads the email. Such actions have been inter­pret­ed as coer­cion and an exploita­tion of the teacher-stu­dent rela­tion­ship and in fact are a vio­la­tion of stu­dents’ First Amend­ment rights as well as fed­er­al law.”

Fines­ur­rey said that the major­i­ty of stu­dents and fac­ul­ty are, in fact, against the build­ing being con­struct­ed — and that Blouin’s per­cep­tion of First Amend­ment rights was curi­ous. The build­ing will be a ral­ly­ing point for Nazis, and it would be built across the street from a syn­a­gogue,” he said. Accord­ing to Fines­ur­rey, the exis­tence of Silent Sam on cam­pus is a vio­la­tion of the Civ­il Rights Act that pro­hibits black stu­dents from being sub­ject­ed to a hos­tile environment.

Fines­ur­rey said he does­n’t believe the school’s board is racist, but rather, they lack the moti­va­tion to act. I don’t think they’re pro-con­fed­er­ate,” he said, just cow­ards that want to hold onto their cushy jobs.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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