Post-Silent Sam settlement, UNC has lost any claim to the high ground

By: - December 12, 2019 6:00 am
Protesters at UNC’s now toppled Silent Sam monument in 2017. (Photo by Joe Killian)

I confess that I have the dubious pleasure of having interviewed members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans multiple times in my career.

But these days, after the UNC Board of Governors drunkenly pitched North Carolina’s university system into the abyss — handing over $2.5 million to the organization to bypass its extraordinarily dubious legal claims — there is one exchange with a local SCV leader that I’m thinking of in particular.

It occurred during my time at a daily paper in Union County, more than a decade ago. There was of course the usual fan fiction masquerading as history — including the wholly unsupportable assertion that the institution of slavery played a minimal role, if any, in the Civil War. But it was this individual’s repetitive use of “colored” in reference to Black people, a term with an obviously derogatory history, that stuck out to me.

He used the term multiple times, but things grew more tense when he insisted that I also use the term, not only in speech but in my coverage. I assured him — rather too diplomatically, I might add — that would not happen.

“But it is the historically accurate term,” he insisted doggedly, as if the term’s actual usage rendered it appropriate in a modern context.

It is a stridently offensive term. But there’s something horribly awry, I thought, about demanding the usage of an “historically accurate,” keenly offensive term while the organization blithely disregards historical accuracy in its accounting of the war.

If hindsight is indeed 20/20, someone forgot to tell the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose ideology is as twisted today as it was then. I shudder even to call them Confederate apologists since a misreading of the word would make it seem as if they’ve ever apologized.

UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

Ideology — their ideology and UNC’s ideology — came up Wednesday when UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz — who’s played an altogether feeble part in this sordid story to this point — shared an apparently angst-ridden letter he penned to Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey and UNC President Bill Roper.

From the letter:

Since my appointment as interim chancellor, I have maintained that the monument should never return to campus, and I support the work by members of the Board of Governors to pursue this goal. My understanding is that the settlement approved by the court required the Board of Governors and the UNC System to pay $2.5 million to a charitable trust separate and independent from the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) for purposes limited to “the preservation” of the monument. I also understand that none of the funds in the trust can be used for the benefit or the activities of the SCV unrelated to the monument’s preservation.

Given the contents of the order, I am particularly concerned with recently published post-settlement comments from the SCV regarding how the organization may seek to use funds from the charitable trust, including plans to promote an unsupportable understanding of history that is at-odds with well-sourced, factual, and accurate accounts of responsible scholars. These comments, along with 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.

I join with others on my campus in stating that the values expressed by the SCV are inconsistent with and antithetical to the values of the University. In addition, I am deeply concerned by the comments from SCV regarding their intended use of funds from the charitable trust.

The SCV’s statement triggered false public accusations in the state and national media that the University is funding SCV ideologies rather than allowing for the preservation of the monument off-campus in order to eliminate the ongoing safety, financial, and legal risks of returning the monument to campus.  I urge the Board of Governors and the UNC System to take any appropriate steps that are available to ensure that the independent trustee administers the charitable trust in strict compliance with the court’s order and the terms of the trust. I also request that the Board and the UNC System consider providing additional information to our University community about this matter.

It is the chancellor’s aggrieved insistence that the media has falsely accused UNC, my alma mater, of funding the SCV ideology. I’m not sure that’s the exact terminology I would use, but let’s say this:

How can anyone observe the UNC board’s doting deference to the SCV — enough for it to hand over millions in a settlement to a group lacking plausible legal claims — and not find it a betrayal of the highest order? How could anyone on this board, or in the system, believe that this agreement would somehow make the Silent Sam controversy slink away?

Furthermore, how can UNC’s chancellor believe that, in some fashion, the system’s payout does not bolster the SCV’s ideology? Of course it does. Of course it does.

What’s bothering the chancellor is not that members of the SCV might have the temerity and the gall to brag about cowing the UNC system. It is that, in some way, their crowing rings true. Of course they cowed the UNC system; of course they brought this Board of Governors to heel.

It will take a lot more than money to make this right. And it remains to be seen whether the SCV will ever get their ill-gotten payout.

Third parties have made it clear they intend to fight this debacle, which is to say that the future is terribly murky here.

But, a word to the SCV and its enablers on the Board of Governors: The past is not so murky at all.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.