In hopes of removing the the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway marker on Franklin Street, the Town of Chapel Hill agreed to ask N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein on Wednesday, Jan. 16 to determine what entity has authority over it.
“No one has a record of who actually owns the land," said Pam Hemminger, mayor of Chapel Hill. "So the attorney general, we are asking him to make the determination as to who owns it, so then that entity can ask the daughters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to take it back.”
In 1913, the UDC started its campaign to establish the ocean-to-ocean Jefferson Davis Highway. They were inspired by the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, which was announced about a year earlier, and placed markers such as the one on Franklin Street along U.S. Highway 15.
The UDC did not respond to interview requests from The Daily Tar Heel.
For the past year, the Town has been working with the N.C. Department of Transportation to investigate who owns the land the marker sits on. Until the Silent Sam protests in 2017, the marker had not been brought to the Town’s attention. Hemminger said the delay in this decision is because the Town was using their resources and devoting most of their attention to Silent Sam, but they also wanted to make sure they had done thorough research on the marker.
“Our goal is to identify a permanent solution to the removal of the marker, which is why we are seeking clear direction from the Attorney General,” said Karen Stegman, a Chapel Hill Town Council member.
The NCDOT, which was established after the marker was installed, has no record of purchasing the land from another owner but has right of way of the property. Hemminger said this means the public can use the land and walk over it. However, having the right of way of a piece of land does not mean ownership.
“It’s a routing system,” said Hemminger. “It’s not the name of the road, it’s just a thing that was done by the UDC years and years ago, and we just don’t see a need for it in our community."
Franklin Street is no longer recognized as Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway by the Orange County Board of Commissioners as of Oct. 16, 2018. Once identified, the owner of the land can remove it without permission of the state and can return it to the UDC.
Stegman said the marker itself does not align with the values of the town and represents a dark and painful chapter of the town's history for many members of the community.
“Jefferson Davis was the leader of the treason, Jefferson Davis was a traitor,” said Gerry Cohen, former counsel to the N.C. General Assembly.
Cohen said while people argued that Silent Sam represented poor UNC students that were forced to serve in the Civil War and did not even own slaves, he thinks it cannot be applied to the Jefferson Davis marker as he was the leader and president of the Confederacy.
The removal of the marker would display the Town’s willingness to leave this part of history in the past, Stegman said.
"We don't want anything in our community that oppresses anybody," Hemminger said. "It was put out there to remind people about white supremacy, and we don't want that in our community."