Sunday, March 26, 2023

State Confederate sons and daughters contest Wilmington’s settlement with local chapter

WILMINGTON ––– The state-level divisions of both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy have sent Wilmington’s attorney formal letters contesting last week’s settlement arrangement, which permanently rids downtown of two prominent antebellum statues. 

There’s also discord within the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Cape Fear Chapter 3, with multiple members writing to the city attorney that their president acted unilaterally when consenting to the city’s settlement arrangement. 

Council approved the settlement Aug. 2 in a 6-1 vote, agreeing to pick up the cost to remove the pedestals that remain in the medians and keep the structures in storage until the local chapter can pick them up. 

The city stands by its ownership findings and settlement agreement

RELATED: City finds simple way out with Confederate monument settlement

A key issue is which entity owns the century-old statutes. Last week, the city attorney presented what he described as the best evidence that the monuments were not publicly owned, instead characterizing the city as their “de factor stewards.”

A 2015 state law makes removing public “objects of remembrance” arduous. The definition of objects of remembrance on public property and the limitations on their removal does not specify ownership. 

One exemption to the statute –– an exception activated by last week’s settlement agreement –– kicks in when there’s a legal agreement regarding relocation between privately owned monuments and public property owners. If the legal agreement were not in place, the statute would still apply to Wilmington’s 3rd and Market street monuments, Wilmington’s attorney John Joye explained last week, and cautioned that this law hasn’t undergone much interpretation by the courts. 

The law includes a public safety provision and a requirement that temporarily relocated monuments be put back within 90 days of the completion of the “project that required its temporary removal.” Wilmington removed the monuments in the dark early morning hours of June 25, 2020 about 12 hours after Wilmington Police Department announced the firing of three cops who were caught having racist conversations. At the time, the city was unaware of the monuments’ owner.

Cape Fear 3 (CF3) asking for the monuments back gave city leaders a clean way to avoid the political ramifications of reinstalling them or finessing some alternative means to remove them within the confines of the statute. 

Discord brewing

Members of the local chapter of Cape Fear 3 are under an informal gag order, according to records obtained by Port City Daily. In a memo shared the afternoon of Aug. 2, hours after the city announced the settlement agreement, Cape Fear 3 president Rhonda Florian instructed all members not to discuss the chapter’s business on social media or if approached. 

“Many of you have seen the news today,” her message began.

A majority of the membership was unaware of the agreement. Florian’s note reminded members she’s the only one that can speak for the chapter and the topic would be discussed in greater depth at the chapter’s September meeting. She has not returned multiple requests to comment. 

Several CF3 members, including its vice president, emailed Joye the following day to inform him Florian had no support or authority to sign off on the settlement. Sara Powell, president of the state division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), penned a letter to Joye on official UDC letterhead, informing him Florian acted without authorization from her executive board. 

“The members had no idea of her actions until they heard it from the news media,” Powell wrote. 

Florian signed the settlement agreement with the city. City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron said it’s her understanding that the CF3 executive board approved the settlement before Florian signed it. 

Powell cited the group has several pending lawsuits statewide to uphold the statute protecting objects of remembrance. Last December, the N.C. Court of Appeals rejected UDC’s appeal 2-1 in a Winston-Salem case with somewhat similar disputes of ownership of Confederate monuments. A superior court judge sided with Forsyth County and Winston-Salem in dismissing UDC’s lawsuit, which contested the city’s removal of a Confederate monument on courthouse grounds that had been sold to private property owners several years prior. 

The monuments were a gift, Powell contended, and cited an excerpt from a 1909 news article that documented the dedication ceremony for the George Davis monument. Both the state UDC and local chapter have no claim to ownership, she concluded, asking the city to return the monuments to their original locations. 

In a separate letter sent the day the agreement was announced, the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans Lt. commander Kenneth Ramsey asserted the monuments were a gift. Ramsey cited the city’s ongoing and expensive maintenance of the monuments; a 2002 StarNews article states repairs to the confederate soldiers monument cost the city $54,000, mostly covered by insurance. 

Covering property under insurance is not proof of ownership, a city spokesperson explained. It covers the Black Lives Do Matter art installation under insurance in the same manner –– “[b]eing a steward of property does not translate to ownership of that property.”

Century-old minutes from a 1909 city council meeting (then named board of aldermen) and a June 1920 city board of commissioners meeting both state “permission was granted” for the monuments to be erected. “Staff considers official, recorded city minutes to be the best evidence; therefore, the city maintains that CF3 is the owner,” Dandron wrote in an email Monday.

Asked whether the city initiated the settlement agreement, Dandron explained CF3 and several other organizations approached the city during its extensive investigation into ownership. 

“Over the course of several conversations with the organization, CF3 requested their property be returned and a settlement agreement was reached,” Dandron wrote. “City of Wilmington staff performed a thorough review of city records and researched the legal matters concerning objects of remembrance. The city stands by its decision to enter into a valid and binding agreement with CF3 and will continue to abide by its terms.”

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