The University of North Carolina announced Wednesday that a torn-down Confederate monument won't return to campus under a legal agreement that hands over the "Silent Sam" statue to a group of Confederate descendants.
The University of North Carolina System said in a news release that a judge approved a settlement giving possession of the monument to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who will keep the statue outside the 14 counties where there are university system campuses. Silent Sam stood in a main quad of the flagship Chapel Hill campus for more than a century before it was toppled in 2018 by protesters.
The announcement comes after the university and statewide Board of Governors spent more than a year grappling with what to do with the prominent but divisive monument, a challenging period during which the Chapel Hill chancellor resigned and the campus police chief who oversaw the response to statue's toppling retired.
Under the agreement, university officials also will create a $2.5 million private fund that can be used for expenses related to preserving the monument or potentially building a facility to house it. No state money will be used to build the fund, the news release said.
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The university system said the settlement complies with a 2015 North Carolina state law restricting the removal of Confederate monuments.
"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," Jim Holmes, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, said in a statement.
The university system statement said that the settlement was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
University system spokesmen didn't immediately respond to emails asking for a copy of the legal settlement.
R. Kevin Stone, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' North Carolina division, issued a statement that the group was pleased to gain ownership of the statue.
"We have been involved in ongoing negotiations and collaboration to achieve this outcome and we believe it is a fair result," he said.
The group didn't immediately respond to an email asking about plans for the statue and where it may end up.
The legal settlement marks the end of a long and fraught debate among the students, faculty, alumni and administrators about whether Confederate monuments belong on campuses. While the conversation stretched back decades, protests around the statue intensified in the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017.
Critics of Silent Sam called it a racist symbol, while supporters said it was meant to honor ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War.
The statue came down in late 2018 after hundreds of protesters erected massive banners on poles and used diversions to conceal work to yank down the statue with a rope. With the statue gone, protests continued around its empty pedestal as the university made fits and starts toward a permanent solution.
In late 2018, the statewide governing board rejected a proposal overseen by then-Chancellor Carol Folt to move the statue from a main quad and build a $5 million facility for it elsewhere on campus. Weeks later, Folt ordered the removal of the base while also announcing she was stepping down as chancellor.
The Board of Governors then appointed a subcommittee to quietly work on a solution. Meanwhile, an outside investigation into the statue's toppling found police and administrators were unprepared for the protests that brought it down. Weeks after that report, the campus police chief of more than a decade announced his retirement.
Before Wednesday's announcement, the board of governors had twice pushed back its deadline for coming up with a solution for the statue, leaving the process open-ended.
Elsewhere in North Carolina, protesters tore down a statue that stood in front of a historic courthouse in Durham, while two local governments more recently ordered removals of Confederate monuments after arguing the statues or land under them were in private hands. Such moves have been rare since the enactment of the 2015 state law that generally prohibits permanent removal of public monuments.