Days appear to be numbered for Winston-Salem Confederate monument

Days appear to be numbered for Winston-Salem Confederate monument

Photo by Joe Killian

At the corner of 4th and Liberty Streets in downtown Winston-Salem, the city is changing.

A construction crew is working throughout the week, where a pile of demolition debris will soon become a Hotel Indigo – part of a chain of hip, modern boutique hotels.

The old Forsyth County Courthouse building, sold back in 2014, is now an attractive apartment building.

But a towering monument to the city’s past overlooks that corner as well.

The Confederate Soldiers Monument, erected in 1905, has become the latest flash point in an ongoing cultural conflict over history, memory and North Carolina’s identity.

Standing 30 feet tall, the statue of a single armed soldier looks down from its pedestal on the streets of today’s Winston-Salem. It proclaims its view of the Confederacy in the verse etched on its base:

SLEEPING, BUT GLORIOUS / DEAD IN FAME’S PORTAL / DEAD BUT VICTORIOUS / DEAD BUT IMMORTAL / THEY GAVE US GREAT GLORY /WHAT MORE COULD THEY GIVE? / THEY LEFT US A STORY, / A STORY TO LIVE!”

But many of the city’s residents now believe that story – of a “glorious” Confederacy and the brave boys who gave their lives to preserve it – is a harmful and false narrative. It ignores the racism and defense of slavery at the heart of the Confederacy, they say, and is a reminder to Black citizens of the Jim Crow era in which it was erected.

“It was erected to terrorize Blacks, our mothers, and I refuse for the statue to remain, to be etched in the memory of our daughters in future generations,” said city resident Crystal Rook during a meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council Tuesday.

“Why would the city of Winston-Salem keep this statue, a symbol of hate, systemic racism and a reason to terrorize the Black community anywhere?” Rook asked. “Especially in a district that prides itself on innovation?”

Mayor Allen Joines

Mayor Allen Joines agrees. He began the year at a ceremony celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation, where he announced the city is giving the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) until Jan. 31 to relocate the statue.

“Back in 2001 when I was first elected, it wasn’t really on my radar,” Joines said in an interview this week. “But there has been a lot of conversation about it in the years since. We have tried to have racial healing in our city, and I really think this is a part of that.”

Seeking a solution

The city has tried to have a dialogue about moving the statue for years, Joines said. But the UDC – the group responsible for erecting it, and which still claims ownership today – has been unwilling to consider relocation.

Citing vandalism to the statue last year and again last month, Joines said leaving it in place now presents both a danger to the statue and a danger to public safety.

“We’d like to be proactive and avoid violence down the road,” Joines said.

Competing groups are organizing events at the monument this weekend – “Get the Hate Out of Winston-Salem” and “Heirs to the Confederacy.” More than 200 people have expressed their interest in attending through Facebook.

The “Heirs to the Confederacy” demonstration will begin in Chapel Hill at the former site of Silent Sam and continue to Winston-Salem in the afternoon. While the group was initially planning on standing in front of the statue for an hour, their Facebook page indicates the UDC has asked them to cancel that plan. Instead, they plan to silently pray and lay flowers at the base of the monument.

Miranda Jones is a special education teacher in Winston-Salem. She’s active with the “Get Hate Out of Winston-Salem” movement and says the city’s deadline to the UDC represents progress, but she won’t stop until the statue comes down.

“It’s great that the city’s downtown is being revitalized,” Jones said. “But if you go two minutes from where that statue stands you’re in East Winston, where there’s a high rate of poverty and people are being displaced.”

“The statue doesn’t just stand for the oppression of my enslaved ancestors, it’s also a monument to the fact that white supremacy and white privilege is alive and well today,” Jones said. “The state represents that, too.”

Jones said she’s afraid the UDC or state lawmakers will find some way to create a roadblock on the progress being made toward removing the statue.

Clashes between those who support and oppose the statue in the middle of downtown Winston-Salem need to be avoided, Joines said. Given the history in Durham and Chapel Hill – to say nothing of Charlottesville – that seems unlikely as long as the monument occupies a prominent space in the city’s downtown.

The statue currently stands on private property, not state or city-owned land. That means it’s not covered by a 2015 state law that’s prevented the removal of such monuments in downtown Raleigh and at UNC-Chapel Hill, Joines said. He has suggested moving the statue to nearby Salem Cemetery, which is home to 36 Confederate graves.

“We thought it was a dignified solution,” Joines said. “That’s an area where obviously the Confederate dead are already being honored.”

The UDC disagreed.

Though the group hasn’t given a direct response to a letter from the city attorney, it made its position clear in a press release last week.

“The heavy-handed tactics of the city and its threat of legal action against us are as shocking as they are dishonorable,” the group said in its statement. “When so many real problems are facing Winston-Salem and its citizens, city officials would rather engage in a cheap political stunt and distraction.”

“We wish for the memorial to remain in its place, where it has stood since it was dedicated in 1905, and will do everything in our power to see that it continues to remain,” the statement said.

This week, Scott Horn, a lawyer representing Winston Courthouse LLC, joined the city in requesting the group remove the statue. The company bought the old courthouse building, which is now the 50 West Fourth apartment building, in 2014 and has come to see the statue as a liability.

“[I]n order to protect the residents of the property, the owner cannot allow the statue to remain on the property,” Horn wrote in the letter to the UDC.

Discussion of the statue and its place in the city intensified after the deadly violence at last year’s protest of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, VA. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a white supremacist drove a car into a group of protesters.

Days later, protesters toppled a Confederate monument outside the Durham County Courthouse as part of what became a national movement to remove Confederate monuments – legally where possible, by force when necessary.

In August, Duke University voluntarily removed a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on its campus.

UNC-Chapel Hill failed to follow suit with its “Silent Sam” Confederate monument, against which students, faculty and staff have been protesting for more than 50 years.

The school’s administration said they were constrained by the state law passed to protect such statues just as sentiment against them surged.

In late August, protesters toppled that statue as well.

A movement for monuments

Silent Sam and the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Winston-Salem share a common origin: the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Organized in the early 1890s, the group’s purpose was to rehabilitate the reputation of their ancestors and fan the flames of a growing “Lost Cause” ideology that romanticized the Confederacy and slavery itself.

Monuments were a huge part of that work, said Dr. Karen Cox, a UNC Charlotte professor and author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”

“They were the driving force behind monuments from the time they were organized in 1894,” Cox said. “Their group grew so rapidly – within a year they had 30 chapters and it just kept exponentially growing. Within 10 years they went from 30 to 30,000 – and 100,000 members by [World War I].”

Today, the group is much smaller, but they still claim chapters in 19 states. In North Carolina, the groups claims nearly 50 active chapters. The state headquarters, a historic house at 302 N. Blount Street in Raleigh, is a stone’s throw from the Lt. Governor’s office and the Governor’s mansion.

From its inception, the group’s influence on how the Confederacy was perceived in North Carolina was profound. It partnered with UNC leaders to erect Silent Sam in 1913 as a monument to students who had given their lives to the Confederate cause.

It organized the first showing of a motion picture in Winston-Salem to help finance that city’s Confederate monument in 1905. Katharine Smith Reynolds, wife of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company founder, gave $100 toward the $300 cost of the statue.

In 1926, the UDC also erected a monument to the Ku Klux Klan in Concord.

“The work that they did was about vindicating their ancestors,” Cox said. “For that early generation of women that was their parents or their grandparents. They wanted to lift them out of the specter of defeat and portray them as heroes or heroines. They don’t want their names to be sullied or to think of them in terms of defeat, to be called traitors.”

The group’s work was about crafting a narrative – really a sort of mythology, Cox said – of a peaceful and honorable Confederate past.

“They are focused on being sure history is written in a pro-Confederate way, that their children grow up revering the Confederacy, that the older generation gets pensions,” Cox said. “There was hardly any stone left unturned in their quest to vindicate their ancestors. It was everywhere around someone. If you went to public schools you would read about Confederate heroes in your textbook. They would make sure libraries carried books that ‘told the truth’ as they would say. That’s why the subtitle of my book is about confederate culture, the memory of the confederacy.”

Over time, the group’s mission and message has morphed a bit. Once a nakedly white supremacist group that held up the KKK as heroes of reconstruction, protecting white women and children whose way of life and social order had been overturned, the modern UDC tries to avoid and downplay the issues of race and slavery.

“People defending these monuments now never want to use that word, ‘slavery,’” Cox said. “They tried to distance themselves from it. But you can’t talk about the Confederacy without acknowledging they were trying to maintain slavery. It’s right there in Alexander Stephens’ “Corner Stone Speech.”

The road ahead

Though they had hoped to avoid it, Joines said a court case seems to be where the confrontation is headed. In the absence of cooperation from the UDC, Joines said the city will seek a court order to have the monument removed.

“We sought out a compromise and what I thought was a very good solution,” Joines said. “Unless another option presents itself, we’ll seek a court order to carry this out. I believe it’s time now to deal with this particular issue.”

This week, Randall McHone, a construction worker, walked across the street from the site of the future boutique hotel to gaze up at the statue and shake his head.

“I guess I can see both sides of it,” McHone said. “If it was in my yard, it would stay up. But it’s not in my yard. If I was Black and I lived in that apartment building and I looked out and saw this statue and thought about my ancestors, who were slaves…that would hurt me too.”