Documenting Confederate Monument Protests at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

By Nicholas Graham and Jessica Venlet

On August 20, 2018, following a rally on campus, protestors pulled down the statue on top of the Confederate monument that had stood on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1913. Activists in Chapel Hill had been working for years to contextualize or remove the monument, known informally as “Silent Sam,” and were galvanized by monument removals in other locations, especially the toppling of a Confederate monument in nearby Durham, North Carolina.

The removal of the monument drew national media attention to Chapel Hill and has dominated campus discussions in the months that have followed. Protests and counter-protests are regularly held on campus, each with a surrounding storm of statements, photos, media coverage, and social media posts.

In the UNC University Archives, we have used a variety of tools and strategies to document the ongoing actions and discussions around the monument. Our work has been bounded by an attempt to balance rapid response collecting with more traditional donor outreach. While our archival instincts have us eager to capture as much as possible as soon as possible, we have often held back due to practical and ethical concerns. Throughout this process, we have paid close attention to the work of other archives and organizations, especially Documenting the Now. Their white paper on ethical considerations for archiving social media, released in April 2018, has been a valuable resource for us.

One of the most challenging aspects of documenting these recent events at UNC – especially the August 20 rally that led to the removal of the statue – is that they are being treated as crimes. Some of the activists have been charged in connection with the toppling of the statue and several of these cases have yet to be resolved. We have tried to consider the impact our collecting activities could have on activists and their allies. We have used a few different strategies to document the protests while events have unfolded.

Initial collecting work has focused on three primary areas:

  1. Statements and News Articles
    The recent period of frequent protests related to the Confederate monument began in August 2017. Since that time university departments, graduate and undergraduate students, alumni, North Carolina politicians, and others have released statements and calls for action regarding the place of the Confederate monument on campus. We track and archive these statements actively. The statements come in a variety of digital forms such as departmental webpages, blog posts, tweets, PDF documents, and Google documents. The majority of these statements are collected with Archive-It though some are added as PDF documents to our digital repository. Part of the collection of statements, which also includes news articles and editorials from local and national news outlets, is available to the public (August 2017 to July 2018). Another portion of the collection, following the toppling of the statue in August 2018, is still in process and not publicly available yet. 
  2. Social Media
    We collected Twitter content primarily focused on a few key hashtags that evolved over the past couple years (#silentsam, #silencesam, #strikedownsam). Initially we were uncertain about collecting Tweets without permission, but we ultimately decided that Twitter has facilitated new approaches for sparking action on campus that are unique to this moment and this generation of student activists. We felt it would be an important addition to other records in the archives that document student activism around the Confederate monument. We only perform searches for hashtags – not keywords – because we view hashtags as a type of public participation that is different from individual Tweets intended only for a user’s direct followers. If we collect a specific Twitter user account, we would only do so with permission. We also set limits on how often we collect hashtags because we felt snapshots of the conversation were more appropriate than a comprehensive approach due to our inability to gain permission from every user.We collect Twitter content by API and use twarc, so that we can provide access to Tweet identifiers only and to offer more possibilities for digital scholarship research methods. (We don’t want to launch into the details of why Tweet IDs are used because this isn’t a post on Twitter archiving, but see more from Social Feed Manager blog which discusses how terms of service impact access.)

    We have also collected Facebook events for protests and counter-protests held on the UNC campus in our Archive-It collection.

  3. Ephemera
    Flyers, buttons, zines, and more have been collected from around campus and during demonstrations. Some are gathered by staff, others have been contributed by student activists.
Recent acquisitions related to Confederate monument protests and opposition at UNC-Chapel Hill. UNC-Chapel Hill University Archives.

The future of the UNC-Chapel Hill Confederate monument is still unresolved. The monument is being held at an undisclosed location while the campus awaits word from the UNC System Board of Governors, who will decide on its final disposition. As we wait for a decision and the discussion and protest that is likely to follow, we feel that it is not too soon to reflect on our work and share a few principles that continue to guide our collecting.

  1. We will collect thoughtfully and respectfully from the beginning. Although it is tempting to just grab as much as possible and figure out what to do with it later, we recognize that doing so could compromise the safety of student activists and would only postpone important decisions that we would have to make.
  2. Traditional archival practices are still essential when collecting online materials. Whenever possible, we make an effort to connect with the people who are creating this material and ask for permission before collecting and sharing it in the archives.
  3. It is essential that we continue to communicate with, share, and learn from our colleagues in the profession. We are not the only archive working through these issues. Our practices have been shaped by discussions with colleagues at other institutions and we are eager to continue these in the future. This blog post is in that spirit – we look forward to hearing from others who have questions or thoughts about our recent work around or who have their own experiences to share.


Learn More

Guide to Resources on the History of the UNC-Chapel Hill Confederate Monument. UNC-Chapel Hill University Archives research guide.

“Silent Sam: A Timeline.” WCHL News. Timeline of Confederate monument protest and counter-protest at UNC-Chapel Hill, 2015-2019.

Collecting a Snapshot of #SilenceSam. UNC-Chapel Hill University Archives blog post.

Documenting the Now white paper and website.

Project STAND

Nicholas Graham has worked in Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2003. He has been the University Archivist since 2015. Prior to UNC, he worked at MIT and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Jessica Venlet works as the Assistant University Archivist for Digital Records and Records Management for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. In this role, she is responsible for a variety of things related to both records management and digital preservation. In particular, she leads the processing and management of born-digital materials.


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