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Questions surround UNC's surprise Silent Sam settlement with Confederate group

Silent Sam blindfolded by a Confederate flag in 2015. The statue was recently given to Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Silent Sam blindfolded by a Confederate flag in 2015. The statue was recently given to Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Last week, a Board of Governors committee met via conference call in a closed-door meeting. Hours later, a short press release was sent out from the chancellor’s office that finally ended Silent Sam's 15 month limbo.

As courts prepared to close for the holidays, a judge signed a judgement in a lawsuit filed against UNC and the UNC system by the N.C. Division Sons of Confederate Veterans. Although the lawsuit contains a comprehensive set of terms that appear to be pre-negotiated, a civil records database indicates that the lawsuit was filed on Nov. 27, the same day it was settled. 

“The timing part is very curious to me — that they coordinated a statement ahead of time,” said T. Greg Doucette, a Durham attorney. 

Activists toppled the statue in an August 2018 protest, and since then have fought to keep it off campus. In the time since that night, responsibility for the statue’s future shifted up a rung from the University to the UNC system, and then hit a climax when former Chancellor Folt resigned and had the statue's lingering base removed on a January night. 

In May, the system said it would be indefinitely delaying an announcement on the statue’s future, leaving students and community members without news until this Thanksgiving break. 

Doucette said he searched around the internet for information on the lawsuit after being confused by the lack of details. There are a number of specifics that need to be clarified, he said, but the courts have been closed for the Thanksgiving holiday and won’t reopen until Monday morning. 

According to the court documents posted on Twitter by WRAL reporter Sarah Krueger and signed by Judge Allen Baddour, a UNC graduate, the University and the system will establish a $2.5 million fund, made up of non state money. “The Monument Trust" will seek tax-exempt status and be used “only for the preservation and benefit of the Confederate Monument as provided in a Monument Trust Agreement." 

"The safety and security concerns expressed by students, faculty, and staff are genuine, and we believe this consent judgment not only addresses those concerns but does what is best for the university, and the university community in full compliance with North Carolina law,” said UNC Board of Governors member Jim Holmes in the Nov. 27 statement from the UNC system communications office.

Documents immediately available say the terms for the monument trust will allow for the construction of a facility to support the monument — along with associated expenses like securing property for the facility, repairing the monument and security costs. 

Silent Sam cannot be displayed in any of the 14 counties that contain a UNC-system campus.

Non-state funds are monies controlled by the University or system not budgeted by government bodies.UNC gets about half a billion dollars per year from the state. 

Doucette said examples of non-state funds include the return on investment from the Chapel Hill Investment Fund, which increased in value by $212.3 million in fiscal year 2019 and regularly distributes a percentage of earnings back to the University to be used as capital. 

He also said donations that don't come with strings attached could be used to pay for the monument trust, and that UNC will proactively solicit cash from top-tier donors in situations like these where extra money is needed on top of the University’s regular expenses. 

“They cultivate these very wealthy donors and usually those are the ones who make these backfill donations,” Doucette said. 

Maxine Eichner, a UNC law professor, said that since many documents related to the lawsuit haven't yet been made available, there are still some questions about the case’s details.

Specifically, the lawsuit’s judgement said that when UNC failed to return the monument to campus in January — when Folt ordered the base’s removal — the rights to the monument returned to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that originally gifted the monument to the University in the early twentieth century. 

But the lawsuit was filed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“Prior to the entry of this Consent Judgement, UDC executed a valid contract assigning any and all rights, title, and interests that it possessed in the Confederate Monument, including any and all choses (sic) of action related to the Confederate Monument, to Plaintiff,” it read in the judgement.

Eichner said the reversion of Silent Sam’s rights to the Sons of Confederate Veterans seems curious, given that they were never the original owners, but that the details of the rights transfer could be better understood with additional documents.

“It’s not clear to me how the Confederate organization would have a right to sue given that we don’t have any evidence there’s a right to reversion,” she said. 

She also said there’s another issue at play. Even if the Sons of Confederate Veterans had a case for procuring the statue's rights, there’s still the question of why they were entitled to $2.5 million.

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“Even if the Confederate group had a right to reversion, it’s difficult to see how the Confederate group would have a claim for $2.5 million,” she said. “The University might have given it to this group to get the statue off their hands. That’s a different rationale than saying the statue belonged to this group and they had to return it.”

Frank Baumgartner, UNC political science professor and the co-chairperson of the Campus Safety Commission, called the settlement "disgusting" and "disgraceful." He said he doesn't see any reason for the University to give out funds to the Confederate group. With its potential to alienate marginalized students on campus, the settlement runs counter to the safety commission's core mission, he said. 

Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander Kevin Stone said the money would be used to set up a facility for Silent Sam where it could be viewed by the public, as the “focal point of a secured site.” He declined to comment on where the statue was currently, or potential future locations, but said that right now it’s “safely and securely tucked away.”

UNC student activist and Campus Safety Commission member De'Ivyion Drew criticized the University for what she said was an exclusion of the student voice in the decision-making process.

"From a student perspective, this action highly disregarded student input, which we have contributed as a whole almost four years of data and feedback about how the statue should be processed with student safety in mind," she said. "That statue stands as a beacon for white supremacist terrorists to gather and allows them to taunt and threaten people who live there."

Maeve Sheehey contributed reporting.