CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina's flagship university proposed Monday to move a toppled Confederate statue into a new $5 million building on the outskirts of campus, seeking to balance security with strict state historical laws in a step that triggered an uproar by chanting demonstrators who took to the streets after nightfall.
The plan presented by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt called for relocating the statue at a site a mile south of where the monument once stood. The proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the campus trustees, though at least one voted against it. An estimated several hundred protesters marched peacefully but noisily against it hours later Monday night.
The marchers made their way back to the site where the controversial statue once stood. This time, the pedestal appeared to be boarded up. It was guarded by university police, who stood behind metal railings. As the protesters pressed against the railings, officers started passing out riot helmets. The protesters then began chanting, "We don't see a riot here! Why are you in riot gear?"
Later it appeared groups of protesters began dispersing.
The separate Board of Governors that oversees the statewide university system will have final say over the plan for the statue known as "Silent Sam." The statewide board is expected to consider it at a meeting Dec. 14.
The trustees proposed a site south of the university's hospital to build a new history and education center that would house the statue torn down by protesters in August. The proposal said the new building in the Odum Village area of campus would cost about $5 million to build, with an estimated $800,000 in annual operating costs.
The chancellor and several of the trustees said they would have preferred moving the statue off campus entirely, but they were restricted by a 2015 state law on Confederate statues and other monuments. Folt said safety was chief among many factors considered in developing the new plan.
"It was very clear that public safety alone would make it impossible to return it to its base or any outdoor location on our campus," she said during the meeting.
"Silent Sam" had stood on a main campus quad from 1913 until it was torn down by protesters who decried what they described as its racist origins.
After the announcement by the trustees, a crowd of protesters gathered in downtown Chapel Hill for a rally Monday night. Following a number of speakers, video coverage showed the demonstrators marching west on Franklin Street, the city's major thoroughfare, chanting slogans as they made their way through the streets.
UNC isn't the first university to grapple with Confederate monuments and ultimately decide to move one indoors. The University of Texas has removed several Confederate statues from outdoor display, including a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis taken down in 2015 and now displayed in a museum.
North Carolina's law on historical monuments allows relocation in only narrow circumstances, such as to preserve the artifact or because of construction. University attorney Mark Merritt said the proposal meets those criteria because the statue was vandalized and ultimately toppled in its previous location and because of planned changes at the McCorkle Place quadrangle that many call the university's "front door."
Under the state law, a new location for a monument must be similarly prominent and accessible; the university's proposal says the new building housing "Silent Sam" will be in the middle of "the next area of growth for campus." The proposed site was previously home to housing for students with family. The university has been tearing down buildings there to prepare it for new phases of campus.
The new building would also have room to hold classes and display other historical exhibits to contextualize the university's history, Folt said. She said it was too early in the planning to discuss a detailed timetable for construction. The written proposal said a likely completion date would be in 2022.
For more than a year before its toppling, "Silent Sam" had been the site of protests that intensified after a deadly 2017 white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the weeks after Silent Sam was torn down, demonstrations for and against the statue continued, leading to arrests. Amid these protests, the university vowed to come up with a "legal and lasting" plan for the statue, taking input from students, alumni, faculty and others. It's been stored in an undisclosed location while the university developed a plan for it.
Already, critics of the statue have complained in online postings that the new plan is too expensive and that the statue has no place on campus, calling for renewed protests.