The Slatest

Judge Voids UNC’s $2.5 Million Settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans over Silent Sam

A man holds a sign that says "Take it down." Silent Sam is seen in the background.
Demonstrators rally for the removal of Silent Sam in August 2017.
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

A $2.5 million agreement between the University of North Carolina and a pro-Confederacy group that angered students and faculty has been nullified, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

On Wednesday, the Orange County, North Carolina, Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour ruled that the Sons of Confederate Veterans had no standing to sue the state’s university system over Silent Sam, the statue of a Confederate soldier at the center of the dispute. Under the now-invalidated agreement, the university system had agreed to pay $2.5 million to a trust under the control of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to preserve and display Silent Sam somewhere outside its original location on the Chapel Hill campus. The Sons of Confederate Veterans could use the money to build a facility dedicated just to housing Silent Sam under the agreement’s terms. According to the News & Observer, the UNC system had struck that deal before the group had moved to file a lawsuit.

Many students and faculty expressed outrage at the settlement because it allowed for the preservation of a symbol of white supremacy and enriched a group known for pushing a “Lost Cause” rewriting of Civil War history. Some large donors pulled their donations to the university. Students and faculty marched in protest and complained that the university’s decision had placed students and others on campus in danger.

Many also complained about the secretive conditions under which the deal was struck. According to the News & Observer, the Sons of Confederate Veterans had first reached out to the UNC system to threaten legal action to force the monument to be kept on campus. The group then offered to erect the monument elsewhere if the university would agree to pay for the “transportation, repair, maintenance, security, and public display of the monument.” The group asked for $5 million, and 19 out of the 20 board members at that meeting agreed (the one dissenting vote came from a man who had called for the statue to be returned to its place on campus). Eventually, that sum was reduced to $2.5 million. According to ABC 11, some of that money has already been used.

A small group of students and faculty then tried to challenge the deal in court, and nearly 100 alumni and donors filed a brief arguing that the settlement should be abandoned. The brief argued that the deal “seriously damages the reputation of the University, which should be committed to historical truth and opposed to modern-day white supremacy.”

UNC had argued that striking the deal was the safest way to ensure that the statue was removed from its campus and therefore guarantee student safety.

Protesters tore down Silent Sam in 2018, a year after neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, and other far-right protesters clashed with counterprotesters at a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia,  over the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The rally led to the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer and inflamed the conflict over Confederate symbols that began in 2015 with the killing of nine black worshipers at a church in South Carolina.

After its toppling, UNC placed the statue in storage. A few months later, it announced a plan to erect a $5.3 million “history and education center” to house the statue but backed down from the plan after further protests. The university’s chancellor then resigned, ordering the removal of the statue’s pedestal on her way out.

The school remained silent on its plan for the statue—students complained that the university never held a public meeting to discuss options—until November, when it struck its deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The deal also included a $74,999 payment ($1 short of the threshold to require approval from the state’s attorney general office) so that the group “will not display any Confederate flags, banners, or signs before, after, or in conjunction with any group event, meeting, or ceremony on the campus of or property controlled by the UNC System … for five years.”

It’s not clear what will happen to the statue now. A 2015 state law banned the removal of Confederate monuments from public property, and lawyers representing UNC have said that scrapping the settlement might mean that the system would be legally obliged to return the statue to its original location. (It’s also possible the university system may try to work out another deal in which the statue is moved to a location off campus—or even a less prominent spot on campus—as a compromise between full removal and full reinstallation.)

But since that law was passed, Winston-Salem and Chatham County have removed statues. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a Lost Cause Confederate organization that was responsible for the erection of many of the state’s statues in the first place, sued. (Historians have noted that Confederate monuments were typically constructed during times of racial unrest or violence. The United Daughters of the Confederacy gave Silent Sam to UNC in 1913, during the implementation of Jim Crow laws and a spate of white violence.) But in those cases, judges noted both the murkiness of ownership issues and the matter of public safety in rejecting the challenges from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, indicating that the courts are not guaranteed to always find the 2015 law applicable.