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.


Project STAND: Documenting Student Activism from the Margins

By Lae’l Hughes-Watkins 

Students gather together outside in protest, 197?
Students gather together outside in protest, 1970. Image 01621 courtesy Case Western Reserve University Archives.

In 2014 a die-in happened at Kent State University. Black students laid outside of the university’s Student Center, in chalk outlines, some bearing signs “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” to draw attention to the national protest and discourse surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. On November 9, 2015, university president Tim Wolfe resigned from Missouri University, in the aftermath of pleas to address growing racial tensions that resulted in a hunger strike by a graduate student and the threat of another strike by the university’s football team. In December 2016, a group of demonstrators was arrested at Michigan State University as they expressed opposition to the arrival of Milo Yiannopoulos, an author, who is widely known for his controversial views on a range of topics from social justice, to feminism, to the LGBTQIA community. More than a year later, on September 5, 2017, nearly one hundred students at Case Western Reserve University banded together to amplify their concerns on the repeal of the Dreamer’s Act (Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals), impacting hundreds of thousands of immigrants. These social movements stem from a long, storied tradition of activism on college and university campuses around the country that can be traced back hundreds of years in some instances. But are these narratives of student protests about marginalized and often oppressed communities being routinely archived as part of the responsibilities of university archivists in the tradition of capturing and preserving the entire narrative of our academic institutions?

In the fall of 2016, I contacted Tamar Chute, the university archivist at Ohio State University.  The goal was to make sure this idea wasn’t crazy and to flesh out an effort to centralize access to these narratives taking place throughout our nation’s academic organizations. One objective was to learn what types of challenges and successes academic repositories were facing in archiving the voices of students who remain in the margins, from Chicano/a, African American, Native American, differently abled, LGBTQIA, ethnic minorities, Latino/a, etc., and other historically marginalized groups. Chute and I discussed the potential benefit of a collaborative tool that could help fellow professionals build relationships with student organizations where none existed, as student organizations are often the custodians of such records. We also acknowledged that creating a tool to bring together resources held at institutions across geographical regions will elevate our resources and potentially drive more traffic to digital and analog collections that may currently be underutilized.  In June of 2017, Project STAND (Student Activism Now Documented) was officially launched to address these questions and create a collaborative of folks ready to highlight their work, interrogate archival practices, pose ethical issues, and build a resource illuminating projects and collections on the frontlines.

Members of the Gay Illini student organization at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, 1987. (RS 41/2/46, Courtesy University of Illinois Archives.)

Project STAND is an online clearinghouse where academic institutions can provide researchers a centralized access point to historical and archival documentation on the development and on-going occurrences of student dissent. Project STAND focuses on digital and analog primary sources that document the activities of student groups that represent the concerns of historically marginalized communities (e.g., African American, Chicano/a, LGBTQ, religious minorities, disabled, etc.). STAND will also highlight the work of others (e.g., faculty, staff, and administrators) who advocate for or support the interests of those communities.

The project was initially Ohio-based and partially inspired by the Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC) due to its data collection tools, but quickly began to incorporate institutions outside the state. This initiative now includes 40 participating institutions including Arizona State, AUC Woodruff Library, Chicago State, Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Jackson State, Kent State, Miami University, Michigan State, Purdue, University of Iowa, South Carolina State, Wright State, University of Akron, University of California San Diego, and University of Rhode Island.

Participants complete a collection assessment sharing information on holdings that meet STAND’s objectives. So far, close to 200 surveys have been completed, and the early data shows 20 percent of the responses represent collections from 2000-present, while records that center on the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, Native Americans, and Disabled Rights are underrepresented. The project aims to continue building partnerships throughout 2018 with symposia and updates through STAND’s website. As we continue to drill down into the data submitted by participants, we seek to get a stronger image of student activism surrounding historically oppressed communities across geographical locations, and to not only interrogate our practices as archivists documenting more contemporary narratives, but also to ensure we have captured the social movements of our past.

Admin Building Takeover
Black United Students (BUS) take over administration building , April 27, 1970. Courtesy of Lafayette Tolliver Collection. Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives.

This effort is emerging at a time when many organizations and scholars are making efforts to do a deep-dive into this area through expanding the scope of their collection development areas, digital initiatives, and exhibits, like Kent State’s Black Campus Movement Project, a collection development initiative to engage in outreach with alumni and current students to capture the history of black student activism, and eventually serve as a model to acquire records pertaining to other disenfranchised student populations, Princeton’s ASAP project capturing the activism of Princetonians on and off-campus, to UC San Diego’s How UC It: Living Archive, “an alternative way to highlight awareness, provide a space for dialogue, preserve and document events that have affected the UCSD campus climate socially and/or incidents that have targeted specific underrepresented group.” Groups such as the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) even hosted an online forum in January entitled A History of Student Activism.

STAND is providing a platform that will elevate collections addressing the growing needs of faculty, students, researchers, community members, and various stakeholders interested in the complex and richly diverse voices of their academic institutions. We are also creating a network of professionals who acknowledge and accept the challenge and rewards of documenting communities that are often forgotten but critical to unpacking and understanding our institutions and communities in which they reside. If you are interested in these issues, we would love to have you join us. Please send inquiries to

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins is the University Archivist, Assistant Professor at Kent State University. She is the founder of Project STAND and holds a position on SAA’s Appointments Committee.  She holds an M.A in English from Youngstown State University and an MLIS from Kent State.