Editor’s Note: Karen L. Cox is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.” She is currently writing a book for UNC Press about the history and legacies of Confederate monuments. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
Something stinks in North Carolina and it is emanating from Chapel Hill. In a court filing made public the day before Thanksgiving, we learned that the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) became $2.5 million richer, the result of a settlement with the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system, and the University of North Carolina, the purpose of which is to set up a “monument trust” for a single Confederate monument that once stood prominently on the university’s campus.
Allow that amount and its purpose to register with you. Two and one-half million dollars from an institution of higher learning will be given to a neo-Confederate organization for the sole purpose of preserving and protecting a Confederate monument.
The board and the university say that the agreement helps avoid a contentious legal contest and keeps the monument known as Silent Sam off campus. It also does not matter that the money being paid is technically “non-state funds,” because the end result is the same; those funds paying for the upkeep of Silent Sam cannot be used for the actual mission of the university – education.
What is one to make of the decision by a university to pay off a neo-Confederate organization? One consideration is North Carolina’s monument protection law that prohibits removal of monuments on public property and says they can only be temporarily relocated under the condition that the monuments be returned within 90 days of being removed. Since UNC did not return Silent Sam to its place on campus, there were technically grounds for a lawsuit.
The other explanation offered comes from a statement by UNC Board of Governors member Jim Holmes, who said “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.”
Monuments are not static symbols and their intent and meaning affects entire communities. Decisions about what to do with them, moreover, should not take place in secret. For the university or the system’s Board of Governors to act as if they made the best or only choice available to them is disingenuous at best. At the University of Mississippi, multiple stakeholders – students, administration and historians – have been involved in the process of addressing its Confederate monument. In February, the Associated Student Body passed a resolution stating, “Confederate ideology directly violates the tenets of the university creed that supports fairness, civility, and respect for the dignity of each person.” Since then, the university has taken steps to relocate its Confederate monument to a Confederate cemetery on campus – a plan just approved by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The final decision will be made by the Board of the Institutions of Higher Learning, the equivalent of UNC’s BOG. Though no final decision has been made, theirs has been a more transparent process.
In addition to its toxic secrecy, UNC’s arrangement with the SCV amplifies to the UNC community and beyond the monument’s original racist context. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) erected this monument on the campus of the University of North Carolina honoring students who fought for the Confederacy. The speaker during unveiling ceremonies told of how he personally “whipped a Negro wench until her skirt hung in shreds” and spoke of what the “Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race” after the war, a clear reference to the vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan. The monument stood there until August 20, 2018, when protestors ripped the monument off of its pedestal, after which both the monument and pedestal were moved to an undisclosed location where they have remained.
What happened between August 2018 and a week ago is only now being revealed, since negotiations were conducted covertly. The UDC owned the monument and offered to take it off the university’s hands within a few days after the protest. But that never happened. Then, and it is not clear when, the UDC transferred ownership of Silent Sam to the SCV, who subsequently filed a lawsuit against the UNC System and UNC itself.
What is remarkable about the lawsuit is that it was filed, and a judgment was made, on the very same day – November 27, 2019. The swiftness with which the suit was settled makes it clear that the details had already been negotiated before the filing. As it turns out, UNC blinked first. And, it was costly.
Since this news broke, a North Carolina attorney, T. Greg Doucette, tweeted out a statement (that he received from an anonymous SCV member) from NC-SCV Commander Kevin Stone. UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, verified the legitimacy of the statement with Stone, who declined to comment further. The tone of Stone’s email to his membership is almost giddy with excitement as he describes this “major strategic victory.” As he noted, the SCV was working directly with representatives from the Board of Governors and the University, adding, “What we have accomplished is something I never dreamed we could accomplish in a thousand years and all at the expense of the University itself.” Although the judgment limits what the money can be used for, essentially all that is necessary to assure the monument’s preservation, Stone writes about using some of the funds to build “a new Division headquarters.”
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Regrettably, the UNC Board of Governors and the University ignored their true stakeholders in this entire process – the very people who make up the university community – and cast its lot with an organization that not only peddles to this day in false historical narratives of the Civil War and slavery, but one that seeks to perpetuate and defend for future generations the heritage and supremacy of white men.