Last Wednesday, with large swaths of the American workforce winding down and looking ahead to a long weekend, an unusual deal was struck. The University of North Carolina’s board of governors, the group that sits atop the state’s public college system, announced that it had reached a $2.5 million agreement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). The lawsuit filed by SCV concerned the decision by the state’s flagship university, UNC-Chapel Hill, not to remount its controversial Confederate statue, known popularly as Silent Sam, after students tore it down last August. Rather than take the case to court, the UNC board settled with SCV, with the terms of the agreement stipulating both that SCV would receive custody of the statue and that the $2.5 million trust had to be spent on “certain limited expenses related to the care and preservation of the monument, including potentially a facility to house and display the monument.”
In effect, the board, using money pulled from interest accrued by the system’s endowment investments, had paid in full for a new home for Silent Sam, the location of which would be decided by a group that can comfortably be called Confederate sympathizers, at the very least. The announcement came as a shock to many who had been following the case—prior to the board’s press release, it wasn’t public knowledge that a lawsuit had ever been filed by SCV, nor was it clear why the UNC board would settle with them at all. Commanding a weighty endowment and public funding as well as a cadre of legal experts, it seemed clear to even the untrained eye that the board could have taken the case to court and won, either through an initial ruling or by bleeding out SCV’s coffers.
Then, on Saturday, North Carolina lawyer T. Greg Doucette noted a curious line in The New York Times’ write-up of the settlement: Speaking with the head of SCV, the Times noted that “he did not know specifically when his group had sued the university but said that negotiations had been going on for months.”* In a thread that would quickly go viral, Doucette wrote that it was odd that one would not even have a ballpark figure on hand for when a lawsuit was filed, especially when fielding a press interview about said lawsuit.
After digging through North Carolina’s digital legal filings database, Doucette discovered that in fact everything happened in the span of a few hours—SCV filed the lawsuit, the UNC board offered an overly hefty settlement agreement with very specific stipulations, both parties signed it, and a press release was sent out from both parties. All on the eve of a national holiday. It’s a sequence of events that inevitably raises questions. “The whole damn thing is ludicrous,” Doucette wrote in a message to The New Republic, pointing out, as he had on Twitter, that $2.5 million amounts to an “annuity” for Confederate apologists.
In North Carolina, Silent Sam is a big deal. An online survey released last week by Elon University found that 65 percent of North Carolinians prefer the Confederate statues that litter the state to remain in their current place, while 35 percent of respondents said that they’d rather see them come down. (Compare this to 73 percent of black respondents favoring removal.)
In 2015, in the weeks following the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof, the North Carolina General Assembly, then controlled by a Republican supermajority, made a decision for the entire state. Sensing that Roof’s violent rampage would spur a renewed sense of urgency to remove Confederate monuments, the Republican supermajority passed a law stipulating that, for a government body to remove a monument from a public space, or even update it to include a more historically accurate plaque, it would have to file a request with the North Carolina Historical Commission, a board whose members were appointed by the General Assembly. The move left many towns, cities, and universities hoping to engage in open discussions about historical commemoration with their hands tied.
UNC’s Silent Sam drew attention because it stood as a defiant symbol defining the contrast between the two versions of North Carolina that have long existed in the state. A Confederate statue erected in 1913 on the campus of the oldest public university in America and long the most liberal institution in the South, Silent Sam’s construction was bankrolled by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Almost immediately, the white citizens of the state, more so than the white students who actually attended the college, clung to it as a sign that even in the most liberal bubble North Carolina had to offer, the state’s history as the final one to secede from the Union and fight on the side of slavery would not be forgotten. For nearly its entire existence, including when I toured the college as a teenager, Silent Sam was considered a highlight on campus tours.
The existence of the statue has been protested for decades, but the controversy has grown over the past decade, beginning with a graduate student’s discovery of the monument’s dedication speech by white supremacist Julian Carr.* In the address, Carr boasted of whipping a “negro wench” just yards away from where the statue stood for over a century.
In August 2018, UNC students and Chapel Hill residents teamed together to tear down Silent Sam, leaving the school’s leadership with a choice to make. Just a year out from the murder of Heather Heyer at the University of Virginia, many assumed that the UNC-Chapel Hill administration would permanently remove Silent Sam to avoid violent and potentially fatal counterprotests from white supremacists, far-right activists, and Confederate sympathizers.
Come December 2018, the UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees—not to be confused with the state’s university system board—released a report to announce its plans for the felled monument, which included the construction of a new $5.3 million facility that would house Silent Sam and provide a wider context for the statue’s place on campus. The move immediately drew local and national criticism. A month later, in Carol Folt’s final move as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, she announced that the statue’s base and pedestal, which had survived the August protest, were to be removed from campus immediately.
After repeated showings of cowardice, it seemed as though Chapel Hill had buried the issue at long last. All that remained was to decide what would happen to the tarp-covered statue itself.
Then came the Thanksgiving week developments. This Monday, Doucette obtained and published a lengthy private statement written by Kevin Stone, head of the North Carolina SCV chapter, which explained to his members in detail how the deal came about. In it, Stone acknowledged that winning a lawsuit would have been impossible for SVC, writing that “even if we had filed suit, our complaint would have been challenged and dismissed immediately without result.”
Stone told SCV members that “the Board of Governors approached us” suggesting “earlier this year” that SCV should appeal to the state legislature to pass a bill that would force UNC-Chapel Hill to hand over Silent Sam and make a small amount, between $300,000 and $600,000, available for the construction of a home for the embattled hunk of metal.
It’s unclear why the state board offered advice in lieu of allowing the SCV to file its doomed lawsuit. But certainly the SCV does seem to trust GOP legislators. In the past two elections, the group’s PAC has donated exclusively to Republican candidates in the General Assembly, as well as to Steve Troxler’s successful 2016 campaign for state agriculture commissioner, with the offerings ranging from $500 to $2,000 dollars to 15 individual GOP candidates.
A legislative proposal strengthening a similar 2015 bill subsequently managed to pass the North Carolina House before it stalled and died in the Senate, thanks in part to the GOP losing its supermajority in the 2018 midterm elections. With the legislative path blocked, Stone wrote, SCV leadership was feeling “despondent.” At the start of the summer, realizing its only option was to pressure the UNC board through the threat of a “media circus,” SCV reopened talks of filing a lawsuit. The board, hoping to avoid another major scandal, immediately engaged, agreeing to shell out the vast sum of money in exchange for SCV’s discretion: “For their part,” Stone’s note alleged, “knowledge by the media, the leftists, UNC faculty, and even other members of the Board not privy to the negotiations that their leadership was working with the SCV would have torpedoed the whole thing.”
With the understanding that Stone’s word should not be taken as gospel, it currently stands as one of the only few plausible explanations for such an odd sequence of events—including the pre-Thanksgiving news dump, when the story was more likely to be ignored. Neither the board of governors’ communications director nor Jim Holmes, the member who was quoted in its press release announcing the settlement last Wednesday, responded to The New Republic’s request for comment before publication time.
If Stone’s version does ultimately turn out to be true, then it would register as a striking indictment of the board’s fecklessness toward Confederate sympathizers, who have hardly earned the sort of deference such a settlement implicitly shows them: Two such individuals from a different group, Heirs to the Confederacy, were charged in April with urinating on and defacing a slave memorial on campus.
In trying to sidestep any bad publicity, UNC’s board of governors created a scandal far more stupid and confounding than would have existed had it stood tall against Confederate sympathizers and beaten them in court. Now, short $2.5 million and weighted with a scandal that will probably only gain traction with a few soon-to-be-filed public records requests, the board will have to answer a number of questions about its reasoning.
*This article previously called Doucette a University of North Carolina alumnus, which he is not. It also mischaracterized the person who discovered Julian Carr’s speech, and when.