Outraged UNC students slam payout to Confederate group for Silent Sam

  • Demonstrators and spectators gather around a toppled Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” in August 2018 at UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. TNS PHOTO

The News & Observer
Published: 12/5/2019 10:37:12 PM
Modified: 12/5/2019 10:37:01 PM

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The UNC-Chapel Hill students, faculty and community members tasked with addressing campus safety say they are outraged by the process used to resolve the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument controversy last week.

Although they’re pleased the statue isn’t returning to campus, they say the university’s $2.5 million payment to the North Carolina chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans poses a threat to campus safety. Some also argue that it shows that UNC sympathizes with white supremacists.

Members of the UNC Campus Safety Commission discussed the settlement and lawsuit against the UNC System Board of Governors at its monthly meeting Wednesday.

“It’s good to get (Silent Sam) off campus, but it’s bad because it sends a message that seems to be university support for these white supremacists and that poses further threats to the safety of the people on campus,” said Larry Grossberg, professor of communication studies and cultural studies.

Grossberg said faculty members are outraged at the way this settlement was handled, the fact that it was done in secret and announced on the day before Thanksgiving, and that it reproduces a solution for a building that was rejected soundly by the university community.

The statue settlement

On Nov. 27, the UNC System reached a settlement with the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, though the terms of the agreement had been approved before the lawsuit was filed. The deal turned over ownership of the statue to the Confederate group and offered $2.5 million for the organization to transport and preserve the monument, as well as build a facility to display the statue.

The board of governors members who were tasked with finding a solution never held a public meeting to discuss the statue or what options the board was considering. No proposal was publicly presented to the full board or to UNC-Chapel Hill leaders.

In a letter to Sons of Confederate Veterans members, Kevin Stone, commander of the group, said the negotiations were kept confidential and called the settlement with the UNC System a “major strategic victory” all at the expense of the university. He said the money would contribute to a new division headquarters.

University’s integrity

Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor and chair of the safety commission, said Wednesday, “There is no disincentive for white supremacist organizations to come to campus when they’re treated this way where we’re going to build them a new headquarters. It’s beyond just giving something away. ... There’s sympathy with the cause of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”

Strom-Gottfried, a professor in the School of Social Work, said the settlement “emboldens” the group. Charles Streeter, former chair of the UNC-CH Employee Forum and a member of the commission, said it “calls into question our own ethics and integrity as a university.”

While there’s anger over the terms of the settlement and how it was done behind closed doors, some also are questioning the validity of the Sons of Confederate Veterans lawsuit itself.

According to UNC law professor Eric Muller, the lawsuit wouldn’t have stood a chance in court. Muller said the lawsuit relies on the assertion that the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans own the rights to the Silent Sam statue, which goes back to the origins of the monument in the early 1900s.

The statue was built in a collaboration of efforts between UNC and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who requested that a monument to Confederate soldiers be erected on campus. It was considered a gift from the group to the university, though UNC alumni raised the majority of the money for it.

At the monument’s dedication ceremony in 1913, a leader of the United Daughters of the Confederacy said the monument would stand “forever.” That one word in that speech is at the crux of this lawsuit.

Can’t escape past?

Fast-forward 105 years to when the Silent Sam statue was pulled down by protesters in August 2018, then former UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt ordered the removal of the base of the monument.

The moment that monument was hauled off campus, ownership of it instantly reverted to the United Daughters of the Confederacy because the condition of the gift was broken, the lawsuit argues.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy handed over the property rights to the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans days before the lawsuit was filed. Without those ownership rights, the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans wouldn’t have any legal leg to stand on. And Muller argues even that wouldn’t have been enough to win the suit.

“There is absolutely no way that a court would conclude that one word in a speech at the dedication had the meaning or the legal significance that this agreement ascribes to it,” Muller told the News & Observer. “No way.”

“Why did we decide to settle a claim that was so transparently invalid,” Muller said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Then have to sweeten the deal with a $2.5 million payment on a claim that was so transparently groundless?”


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