A judge has voided a 2019 settlement that requires the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pay $2.5 million and hand over the Silent Sam Confederate monument to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The bronze statue had stood on the Chapel Hill campus from 1913 until it was toppled by protesters in 2018 and apparently kept in storage ever since by the university, according to reports.
The judge’s ruling came Wednesday at a hearing held to determine whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans had the legal standing to bring the lawsuit against the UNC System about the statue in the first place.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour said the group didn’t have standing.
By all accounts, the settlement was a hastily arranged deal.
The Confederate group filed the lawsuit a year after protesters toppled the Confederate monument in August 2018, and the case was settled in December 2019.
Five UNC students and a UNC faculty member, with the backing of a national civil rights lawyers group, were trying to intervene in the lawsuit that led to the settlement.
Their goal was to reopen the case, stop the deal and recover the $2.5 million payment from the university to a trust for the Sons of Confederate Veterans to preserve and display the Silent Sam statue.
In December, Baddour denied their motion to intervene in the lawsuit but scheduled another hearing to discuss the SCV’s rights and the trust in the original settlement.
The group filed a brief that questioned the court’s jurisdiction, arguing the SCV doesn’t have ownership interest in the Confederate monument.
Nearly 100 prominent UNC alumni and donors also filed a brief, with assistance from former UNC historian Cecelia Moore, arguing that UNC is the only entity with ownership rights and so the lawsuit should be thrown out. They also said the settlement is a “misuse of university funds” that “seriously damages the reputation of the University, which should be committed to historical truth and opposed to modern-day white supremacy.”
How matters unfolded
Silent Sam stood in the heart of UNC’s campus until it was illegally torn down by protesters in August 2018.
After more than a year of debate, the UNC System reached the deal with the SCV in November. It took months of negotiating behind closed doors and included an additional $74,999 payment to the Confederate group.
The decision prompted protests from students and faculty who were concerned about public safety. The Mellon Foundation pulled grant money from UNC as a result and the North Carolina attorney general and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren criticized the deal.
The UNC System’s Board of Governors was faced with two choices: put the monument back up at UNC or make an agreement to get rid of it.
A raucous protest in 2018
The statue, which was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913, had been under constant police surveillance after being vandalized several times, costing the university hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Then came the protests of Aug. 20, 2018.
Student protesters appeared to outwit officers with coordinated tactics that started with the raising of four tall black banners on bamboo poles, along with more banners on the ground, concealing efforts to tie a rope around it. They then split into two groups, with most marching away from the statue to distract from a small group remaining behind. The banners were up for about an hour before the groups converged and yanked down the statue, according to videos.
The bronze figure of an anonymous Rebel soldier was pulled down from its tall stone pedestal by protesters using ropes and banners to mask their action.
Once the statue fell, Silent Sam facedown in the dirt, demonstrators kicked it and cheered, chanting, "Tar Heels!" and "Whose campus? Our campus!" as passing cars honked in approval, according to The Associated Press.
The protests were assailed by the university’s leadership, who called for arrests and prosecutions.
“The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff is paramount,” President Margaret Spellings and board chairman Harry Smith said in a statement, according to the AP. “And the actions last evening were unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible. We are a nation of laws--and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.”
House Speaker Tim Moore also criticized the protesters, saying they should be arrested and prosecuted “to make clear that mob rule and acts of violence will not be tolerated in our state.”
After the protests
UNC’s Board of Governors, which never held a public hearing on the future of the monument, did not want to risk the statue being re-erected on campus so it made a deal with the Confederate group because of its ownership interest and the prospect of keeping Silent Sam off all UNC System campuses forever.
The UNC System set rules for how the Confederate group could use the $2.5 million fund, but some UNC students and faculty were concerned the money would be spent to promote violence and would make the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as one student described it, “a very wealthy white supremacist organization.”
The Confederate group has denied that it has ties to racist or white supremacist organizations.
What was at stake
The SCV would have had access to up to $2.5 million to preserve the monument through a charitable trust set up by the UNC System, which could have included a new facility to house and display the statue.
The trust agreement outlined that a trustee, Matthew McGonagle, would approve use of the money as needed. The SCV had not released plans for where the statue will go, but the group wasn’t allowed to put it in any of the 14 counties that has a UNC System institution.
What it means
North Carolina has been at the center of the debate about what to do with Confederate monuments as one of three Southern states with the most statues, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. More than 90 Confederate monuments stand in public places other than cemeteries around the state. A state tally shows Confederate monuments are located at contemporary or historic courthouses in about half of the state's counties.
On Feb. 3, a group of UNC-Chapel Hill professors petitioned the UNC Board of Trustees to allow the university to rename buildings and historical places on campus, particularly those tied to a racist or white supremacist history.
The board voted in 2015 to freeze the renaming of any historical buildings, monuments, memorials and landscapes until 2031. At the time, the board also asked the chancellor to create a task force to explore options for how to present UNC’s history in physical locations on campus and voted to rename Saunders Hall on campus to Carolina Hall.
Saunders Hall was named for William Saunders, a former member of the board and purported leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The university installed a marker describing Saunders’ contributions to UNC and to the state and explaining why his name was removed from the building. They also placed a plaque on the building that honored people who have suffered injustices.
The professors are now asking new UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to ask the board to rescind that “unwise” moratorium on the renaming of historic properties.
The petition is being sent to Guskiewicz so that he can put it on the agenda for the next board meeting.
Student and faculty activists have openly objected to about 30 places on campus they say are “dedicated to enslavers and white supremacists,” including Kenan Memorial Stadium.
— Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report. Compiled by ArLuther Lee for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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