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Allen Johnson: Judge rightly shames UNC about ‘Silent Sam’

Allen Johnson: Judge rightly shames UNC about ‘Silent Sam’

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This week's column:

An Orange County judge last week found a “Silent Sam” supporter guilty of punching a student during dueling protests for and against the Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill.

But District Court Judge Beverly Scarlett clearly was more agitated with the university, which she singled out as “the proximate cause of this conflict.”

So, after convicting Barry Brown, 40, of Liberty on assault charges for slugging 20-year-old Michael Mole, Scarlett smacked the university with the kind of lecture your mama might deliver. When she’s angry.

“I ask the leadership of the university, if your goal is to teach a diverse community of students, what are you doing to assure that all students feel emotionally and physically safe?” said Scarlett, the first African-American District Court judge in Orange County.

And another thing ...

“What is the difference in the Silent Sam statue and a statue of Adolf Hitler?” she asked. “Is human suffering not a common denominator?

“Moreover, where are the statues of the numerous people of color who worked to construct the buildings at the university? Where is the statue of Thomas Day, who built the cabinetry for the university’s first library? To the university, isn’t there a more enlightened way to celebrate the contributions of all?”

Scarlett was too lenient on Brown, if you ask me. His right-handed blow to Mole’s cheek was vicious. Yet his was convicted without punishment. During the Aug. 25 incident, Mole had tried to block his path when Brown, while brandishing a Confederate flag, tried to place flowers on what then remained of Sam: his pedestal (five days earlier, protesters had ripped the statue from that base). So Brown slugged Mole. And bragged about it on Facebook. When asked by a reporter for The News & Observer of Raleigh if he had spoken to Mole after the incident, Brown said, “What would I say to him? ‘Would you like another one?’ ”

Ironically, it was Mole who, in a deal with the DA, was required to perform 24 hours of community service to avoid simple assault charges.

But the judge’s blistering rebuke of UNC was spot on. “Isn’t there a more enlightened way to celebrate the contributions of all?”

Of course there is. That’s why in Greensboro the renaming of a local street for civil rights icon Josephine Boyd matters more than many people realize. It’s why UNC-Chapel Hill’s dearth of monuments to people of color is so indefensible. It’s why the Confederacy-spangled Union Square in Raleigh needs an African-American monument. And it’s why the steady progress of a Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation public art initiative is so promising.

The Winston-Salem-based nonprofit will invest up to $50,000 apiece for as many as 10 works of public art throughout the state. It also will support “community engagement activities” related to each work of art.

“This initiative aims to include historically marginalized people in the decision-making processes about art in public places and is intended to spark healthy dialogue,” says a recent news release about the project.

The release named a 13-member advisory council for the Inclusive Public Art Initiative that includes two Greensboro representatives: Antoine Williams, an art professor at Guilford College, and Hernando Ramirez-Santos, a member of the board of directors of Casa Azul, a nonprofit that promotes Latino arts and culture. Eighty-two letters of intent for projects were received by the Oct. 8 deadline. Many of them likely will shed light on history we didn’t know — or are just discovering.

For instance, I had the honor recently of hosting a conversation at the Greensboro History Museum with the author Eric Armstrong Dunbar, whose remarkable book “Never Caught” unearths the previously untold story of Ona Judge, a runaway slave — from George and Martha Washington. Not only do we learn that Judge managed to flee the Washingtons, but that the first president and his first lady never gave up trying to recapture her. For years.

That just goes to show you. Much of our past not only has been unsung, it has been untold. Despite all of the monuments in North Carolina — far too many that celebrate Confederate mythology — history never has been, and never will be, completely set in stone.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson at allen.johnson@greensboro.com or (336) 373-7010.

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