One of the lingering questions from the Silent Sam saga — how officials of the state’s university system negotiated the disposition of the controversial statue on the Chapel Hill campus with a Confederate advocacy group — has been answered in a legal settlement between the UNC System and The Daily Tar Heel.
The newspaper went to court in January 2020 claiming that members of the UNC System Board of Governors had not met in public to deliberate the fate of the statue, in violation of North Carolina’s open meetings law.
A settlement reached Feb. 1, by which the paper agreed to drop the lawsuit, requires the system to:
• Pay $74,999 to the Chapel Hill campus to be used for racial equity initiatives;
• Explain in writing how the 2019 settlement with N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans was reached; and
• Give a deposition about how a newspaper editorial submitted by system officials was conceived.
The $74,999 matches the amount the system agreed to give the Confederate group in exchange for its agreement to limit actions on state campuses such as the counterprotests they conducted against students and others who wanted the statue removed from the campus. It was one dollar short of the $75,000 minimum that requires the state attorney general’s review for agreements.
The statue was pulled down by protesters in August 2018, setting off a quandary about what to do with it. After the Board of Governors rejected a $5.3 million UNC plan to build a museum-type structure to house the statue on South Campus in December of that year, it appointed a committee of five of its members to work toward a solution.
The DTH and other media maintained that the eventual plan — to give it to Sons of Confederate Veterans with some stipulations on its display and with $2.5 million from the Chapel Hill campus to transport and house it — was negotiated in private. The plan announced in November 2019 was not preceded by public meetings on the matter.
A lengthy document to explain the negotiation process says the Sons of Confederate Veterans approached system officials in February 2019. Jim Holmes, one of the five Board of Governors’ members appointed to work with officials at Carolina toward a solution, made an initial contact with the group, then brought in Clayton Somers ’93, UNC’s vice chancellor for public affairs, because Somers knew the group’s lawyer. The Sons of Confederate Veterans wanted the monument restored to its place on the campus; UNC was against that. The parties worked out the agreement to transfer the statue to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and then-system interim president Dr. William Roper and the group’s leader, Kevin Stone, signed it.
On Feb. 11, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz issued a statement clarifying his involvement in the 2019 negotiations.
He said that as the negotiations between the system and the Confederate group began, the BOG requested that Somers work directly with them.
“Once I became interim chancellor [in February 2019] and while Clayton was on this assignment for members of the BOG, he provided me with general broad updates regarding the progress of this project. … While I did not participate in the negotiations regarding any settlement, as I have previously stated, I was aware discussions were occurring through the UNC System, and I learned that the specific terms of the settlement were nearing completion shortly before Thanksgiving.”
Guskiewicz encouraged anyone with additional questions to read the system’s legal settlement with the newspaper.
“The five members of the Board of Governors did not meet or otherwise negotiate or approve” the settlement, the UNC System’s explanation document says.
On Nov. 27, 2019, it says, the full board met in closed session and signed the settlement.
The next month, the five board members signed an op-ed article that was intended to explain the decision. The op-ed triggered the DTH suit. In a Jan. 27 deposition, Earl Whipple, who had joined the UNC System staff as vice president for communications five months earlier, explained that he had written the op-ed in consultation with the five board members and members of the system staff.
Early in 2020, a Superior Court judge threw out the settlement that gave the statue to the Confederate group, ordered the statue returned and dissolved the trust that held the $2.5 million. The statue is in storage, its future still unresolved.
• Comprehensive coverage of Silent Sam from the Carolina Alumni Review archives.