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Confederate "Silent Sam" statue's pedestal removed from UNC-Chapel Hill campus

The history and future of Confederate monuments

Chapel Hill, N.C. -- North Carolina's flagship public university early Monday removed from a main campus quad the pedestal on which a controversial, now-toppled Confederate statue of "Silent Sam" once stood, reports CBS Raleigh affiliate WNCN-TV.

The school issued a statement saying the removal had begun, and the station posted video of the pedestal after it was removed. WNCN said its crew saw police on campus taking someone into custody.

The removal came hours after University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt announced her decision to have the massive pedestal and bronze memorial plaques hauled away, but without saying when it would happen. She also announced she would step down at the end of the school year.

Folt said she was concerned about safety at the site that continued to draw protesters for and against the statue. The items will join the statue in storage while their fate is decided.

"The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment," Folt said. "No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe."

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Crew removes pedestal of controversial Confederate statue of "Silent Sam" from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus early on January 15, 2018 WNCN-TV

Frank Powell, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans' North Carolina chapter, said Monday night he believes removing the pedestal would violate the law.

"The law is the law, whether you like it or not," he said by phone. The university has "already succumbed to mob rule" by allowing the statue itself to be toppled, Powell said.

Controversy over Confederate monuments persists

Silent Sam honors Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. The statue has been in storage since it was toppled last August by protesters who said it was a racist symbol.

APTOPIX Confederate Monuments North Carolina
A police officer grabs a man holding a Confederate flag during a rally over Confederate monument known as Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., on August 30, 2018 Gerry Broome / AP

Backers of Confederate monuments say they're emblems of American history, while opponents say they glorify the South's legacy of slavery and racism, the Reuters news agency points out.

More than 100 monuments and Confederate symbols have been removed nationwide since 2015, but a recent report found there are still more than 700 Confederate monuments in the U.S. – nearly 100 in North Carolina.

The effort to eliminate Confederate monuments gained momentum across the country after avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine black people to death in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, Reuters noted, adding that the shooting ultimately led to the Confederate flag being removed from the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia.

Future of "Silent Sam" in limbo

The statewide Board of Governors has given itself until mid-March to come up with a plan for the Silent Sam's fate.

Folt's surprise order to put the pedestal in storage drew an angry response from the leader of the board overseeing the state's public universities. But Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith issued a statement saying Folt's announcement hadn't altered the panel's timeline.

"We are incredibly disappointed at this intentional action," he said of Folt's plan to remove the pedestal. "It lacks transparency and it undermines and insults the Board's goal to operate with class and dignity."

As the public face of the university, Folt had been criticized both by those who want the statue gone for good and those, such as Powell, who say state law requires that it be restored to where it had stood, in McCorkle Place, since 1913.

The announcement of her departure came weeks after the rejection of a plan, which Folt helped craft, to build a $5 million history center on campus to house Silent Sam. Folt's announcement also came shortly after the departure of the president of the statewide university system, Margaret Spellings, who had also frequently drawn protesters' barbs.

Several hundred students marched through the UNC Chapel Hill campus in early December, some scuffling with police, protesting the school's decision to relocate Silent Sam, saying that would create a safe space for white supremacy.

The Board of Governors rejected the history center plan later that month and announced it would go "back to the drawing board." Folt acknowledged in December that the plan "didn't satisfy anyone."

Folt, who came to UNC in 2013 from Dartmouth College, said Monday she was proud of work she'd overseen on the Campaign for Carolina fundraising drive that raised more than $2 billion as of last summer, about half of its ambitious goal. "I've decided that this is the right time for me to pass the leadership of our outstanding university, with all its momentum, to the next chancellor," she wrote Monday.

But Folt's tenure also saw UNC sued by a transgender employee over the state's so-called bathroom bill, as well as the Silent Sam debate growing more heated after a deadly white nationalist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Some of the Chapel Hill campus trustees issued a statement saying they supported Folt's decision to remove the pedestal and applauding her service.

"We thank Chancellor Folt for working tirelessly to elevate our University each and every day to serve the people of North Carolina and beyond," said the statement signed by three trustees and issued by the universit

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