Memorial Hall at Vanderbilt University, formerly known as Confederate Memorial Hall.
Memorial Hall at Vanderbilt University, formerly known as Confederate Memorial Hall. (Wikimedia Commons)

From New Orleans to Atlanta to New York, local officials and their constituents—not judges—are deciding what to do with Confederate monuments. But when a court was pulled into a dispute between Vanderbilt University and United Daughters of the Confederacy of Tennessee over the name of a campus building, the result was a curious mix.

The state appeals court in 2005 held that the university was bound by contract to keep the name Confederate Memorial Hall. It was built in the 1930s as a women’s dormitory with a $50,000 donation from UDC in return for naming the building and granting free rent to descendants of Confederate fighters.

But Vanderbilt prevailed last year in removing the name by returning the present value of the donation—$1.2 million.

Although the court decision turned on 80-year-old contracts, the case provided a microcosm of the debates occurring today.

Doug Jones of Nashville’s Schulman, LeRoy & Bennett, who represented UDC, said his client merely wanted to honor soldiers from Tennessee who fought not for slavery but to repel an invasion by the North. Ninety-two percent of Tennessee soldiers didn’t own slaves, he said.

Reminded that many states declared slavery as the basis for secession, Jones said, “That’s the propaganda—if it’s about the war, it’s about slavery.”

Jones emphasized that slavery was “horrific” and a “blight on this country.”

“I’m not calling for the Old South to come back,” he said.

William Ozier of Bass Berry & Sims, who represented Vanderbilt, referred a call to Audrey Anderson, the school’s general counsel. She provided the statement made last year by Vanderbilt’s chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, explaining the removal of the word “Confederate.”

“The residence hall bearing the inscription Confederate Memorial Hall has been a symbol of exclusion and a divisive contradiction of our hopes and dreams of being a truly great and inclusive university,” said Zeppos. “It spoke to a past of racial segregation, slavery, and the terrible conflict over the unrealized high ideals of our nation and our university, and looms over a present that continues to struggle to end the tragic effects of racial segregation and strife.”

Anonymous donors funded the return of the money, said Zeppos, who joined Vanderbilt in 1987 as a professor of law.

Those donors gave Vanderbilt a path around the 2005 decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which rejected a host of arguments by the university. Judge William C. Koch Jr. wrote that Vanderbilt’s claim that a plaque explaining UDC’s contribution to the construction of the building amounted to “substantial performance” of the contract by Vanderbilt “cannot be taken seriously.”

In a concurrence, Judge William B. Cain called slavery “indefensible by any standards” but also argued that Confederate soldiers valiantly fought to defend their homes and farms, not slavery they didn’t use. He quoted at length the memories of U.S. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who accepted the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his army. “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood,” Chamberlain wrote. “‘[W]as not such manhood to be to welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

In Atlanta, state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, is pushing for the Georgia General Assembly to change a state law barring the removal of Confederate monuments, including one in Decatur.

Of counsel at Holcomb & Ward, Parent said she wants local communities to be able to decide what should be in a local place of honor.

Briefed on the Vanderbilt case, she said “It’s propaganda to say the war wasn’t about slavery.”

She said she understood how family and communities of fallen soldiers would honor them. The question for local communities debating memorials today, she said, is, “What idea are you honoring?”