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Black Pioneers, Other Alumni: Vacate Silent Sam Decision

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The amicus brief filed in Orange County Superior Court on Wednesday asserts that the United Daughters of the Confederacy never owned the monument known as Silent Sam and therefore could not have transferred it to the Sons of Confederate Veterans last year. (File photo)

Eighty-eight alumni, including 14 members of Carolina’s Black Pioneers and some of its most illustrious graduates, have filed a court brief that supports their contention that the Sons of Confederate Veterans did not have legal standing to negotiate the deal that would give them UNC’s Confederate monument and up to $2.5 million to maintain it.

A historian’s affidavit supporting the alumni claim says the money, which came from the Chapel Hill campus, is a “misuse of University funds” that “seriously damages the reputation of the University.”

Based on research begun last June of University records from the early 20th century, the amicus brief filed in Orange County Superior Court on Wednesday asserts that the United Daughters of the Confederacy never owned the monument known as Silent Sam — that UNC, in effect, always owned it — and therefore could not have transferred it to the Sons of Confederate Veterans last year as the Sons of Confederate Veterans said it did in a lawsuit that laid claim to the statue.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans’ absence of standing, the brief says, means the court had no jurisdiction to enter a consent judgment that gave the Sons of Confederate Veterans the statue and should be vacated.

“The evidence decisively establishes that, contrary to the representations of the parties, the Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus was always owned by the University, and neither the United Daughters of the Confederacy nor SCV have ever had any ownership interest in the monument,” the affidavit says. “Lacking any ownership interest, SCV had no standing to bring suit. And because SCV had no standing, the Court had no jurisdiction to enter the Consent Judgment.”

The SCV filed a response with the court on Wednesday supporting its belief that the United Daughters of the Confederacy gave the statue to UNC. A UDC representative had said “may it stand forever” at the 1913 unveiling, and the SCV cited that as a condition of the gift.

But research by Cecelia Moore ’13 (PhD), who was the University’s historian from 2014 until she retired last year, shows that the UDC raised only about $2,500 of the $7,500 cost of erecting Silent Sam and that then-UNC President Francis Venable led an alumni effort that raised the rest. Moore’s affidavit says Venable intended to be involved in the fundraising from the start and that at one point he stopped the work due to a lack of money.

Further, Moore said, nothing in the correspondence between the UDC and Venable says anything about gift terms such as “forever.”

The SCV can claim no injury resulting from the removal of the statue by protesters in August 2019 and of its pedestal by order of the then-chancellor in December, the brief says. “Because SCV had no ownership interest, it had no standing to bring suit,” it says.

Members of the UNC System Board of Governors, which brokered the settlement with the Confederate group, say they reached the most workable way to keep the Confederate monument’s divisive presence off campus. The action included authorizing that up to $2.5 million be available to the North Carolina division of the SCV, with the funds coming from the interest on Chapel Hill’s endowment, for expenses related to moving and re-erecting the statue.

UNC administrators were spectators to the settlement, and then-Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz still was asking the UNC System for information two weeks after the settlement was reached.

The Faculty Council condemned the payment, social media lit up with dissent and questions, a legal group filed suit to overturn it, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation pulled back on an anticipated $1.5 million grant to UNC.

BOG members were silent for 16 days following announcement of the settlement, and then some began to ask for more openness with the public. Some documents were released after public records requests were filed. Then on Dec. 13, in a regular meeting of the board held by conference call, one member asked for clarification on the limits of use of the money — a leader of the SCV had indicated in a letter to group members that the money might cover a new division headquarters. That prompted another BOG member to ask for more openness with the public and was followed by a statement from the five BOG members who negotiated the settlement. The BOG’s January meeting passed without discussion of the issue.

The court invited interested parties to file briefs on the issue on or before Wednesday.

Guskiewicz in December gave voice to the concerns of the 88 who filed the brief Wednesday, saying that “various aspects of the settlement, particularly the requirement that UNC-Chapel Hill reimburse the UNC System for the payment of the funds to the trust, have led to concerns and opposition from many corners of our campus.”

Among the Black Pioneers, a University-affiliated group of alumni who helped break the color barrier at UNC in a 20-year period starting in 1952, are former trustee Phillip L. Clay ’68; Kelly Alexander Jr. ’70 (’73 MPA), a member of the N.C. House; Karen L. Parker ’65, the first black woman to graduate and a civil rights advocate as a student; and Melvin L. Watt ’67, who served 21 years in the U.S. House.

Among other alumni who signed on are Taylor Branch ’68, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the acclaimed three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr.; Walter Dellinger ’63, Duke University law professor emeritus and former acting solicitor general of the U.S.; James G. Exum Jr. ’57, former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court; Valerie Foushee ’78, a state senator for the district that includes Chapel Hill; designer Alexander Julian ’70; Robert F. Orr ’68 (’75 JD), former associate justice of the N.C. Supreme Court; Carla Overbeck ’90, a three-time All-America soccer player; Jane Smith Patterson ’61, former N.C. secretary of administration and chief adviser for policy, budget and technology for the Office of the Governor; and Donald W. Stephens ’67 (’70 JD), former senior resident Superior Court judge.

The brief was written by Burton Craige ’75 (MPH, ’80 JD) and William W. Taylor III ’66.


 

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