For Historians, the Business of Studying Monuments Like UNC’s Silent Sam Takes a Toll

Historians in the News
tags: University of North Carolina, Confederate Monuments, Silent Sam

Last year William Sturkey’s walk to his campus felt like walking into a fight.

The assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lived on a street named for a slave-owning family. He’d walk outside, turn right, walk down another street named for a slave-owning family, arrive on the campus, walk past a building honoring Confederate soldiers, then past a Confederate-soldier statue, then past a building named for a white supremacist before arriving at his office door.

It wasn’t so much the names that bothered Sturkey. Rather, it was the threats lobbed at student protesters who took issue with those names and their legacies. It was the administration’s passivity, according to Sturkey, toward the university’s racial past. It was the requests made of faculty members like him to spend time and energy embroiled in the fray.

The requests built up. Sturkey, who studies race in the American South, sat for interviews, sat on panels, sat in meetings, and fielded more than 400 emails (he counted) just about Silent Sam, the eight-foot Confederate figure frozen in bronze.

Last year took a toll, physically and emotionally, he said. Before activists yanked down Silent Sam on Monday, at the pinnacle of an hourslong student rally, Sturkey wasn’t sure he could keep it up forever.

When the significance of Confederate symbols and racist histories flares up on campuses, and news stories follow, two groups are typecast in lead roles. There are the student protesters, portrayed as upset and unflinching. And there are the administrators, shown as responsive at best or ignorant at worst. 

What goes unnoticed are the historians, like Sturkey, whose campuses are living artifacts to interrogate. They don’t subscribe to the caricature of an academic: someone studying a niche discipline in solitude. Instead, their opinions are sought out. They’re asked to write statements, op-eds, and more statements. Because of that insistence for insight, their work bleeds into their personal lives through activism, inquiry, and the occasional death threat. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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