Last week, as Valerie Johnson watched TV footage of protesters pulling down Confederate statues that had stood on the State Capitol grounds for more than a century, she felt a rush of complicated emotions.
“It wasn’t exactly joy,” she said. “It was more … ‘Finally.’ This was something that was much overdue. For me it was partially that, partially vindication of the stance that I took.”
Johnson, the dean of Shaw University’s School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, is also a member of the North Carolina Historical Commission. Two years ago, when the issue of removing the monuments came before the commission, she was one of only two votes against keeping them in place. “Noah [Reynolds] and I voted no about keeping the statues there,” Johnson said. “And then the last clause, where they stated we should keep them up and contextualize them … I said, ‘There is no way to contextualize these three monuments.”
At the time, Johnson was one of only two Black people on the commission, which has 11 voting members. She was the only Black member on the study committee formed to look at the monument issue, which was decided just two days after protesters toppled the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In an impassioned speech before the vote, Johnson said she had to speak and vote as “a Black woman, mother, anthropologist, queer, worker, North Carolina resident and descendant of the Gullah Geechee people.”
“None of these identities are reflected by the current monuments on the State Capitol grounds,” Johnson said.
Ultimately, her words failed to move the majority of the board, whose members said they were constrained by a 2015 law passed by the General Assembly to keep such statues in place, even as popular sentiment built to remove them.
Last weekend, after Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the three Confederate monuments removed from the Capitol grounds for public safety reasons, Johnson visited the site with her daughter Kamaria, who recently graduated from Wellesley College. She reflected on what she’d said two years ago — that the monuments were a source of pain for generations of Black North Carolinians, glorifying those who fought to keep Black people enslaved.
“I knew this was coming, that this eventually would happen,” Johnson said. “I knew people would vandalize them — or I should say, I knew people would expressing their feelings about them. Their very existence is vandalism to my folks, because they were put up to oppress.”
Historical experts from the state’s top universities agree. They point out almost that all of the nearly 100 Confederate monuments and statues across the state were erected decades after the war, in a period of open and thriving white supremacy in the South that led to the Wilmington Massacre in 1898 and the institution of Jim Crow laws in the late 19th and early 20th century.
North Carolinians worked for decades to have the statues at the Capitol — and those around the state — removed. But even as they elected local leaders who agreed with that sentiment, Johnson said, the General Assembly narrowed the path for legally removing them until it was seen as almost impossible. “Gov. Cooper tried to prevent what we saw happen last week by seeking to relocate the statues two years ago,” Johnson said. “Having folks protesting and counter-protesting at the statues and seeing police act violently against them created a public safety problem.”
But the commission and the Republican leaders in the legislature rejected Cooper’s suggestion that the statues be moved to the Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County.
For years now, the most that has been offered has been the promise of erecting statues that would honor African Americans in North Carolina to “balance” the many Confederates and avowed white supremacists honored on the Capitol grounds. Action on even that plan has been very slow, Johnson said.
Last week, in a last-minute amendment to a capital projects bill, the state Senate finally approved $2.5 million for an African-American monument at the Capitol and $1.5 million for a sculpture park called Freedom Park a few blocks away in downtown Raleigh. On Monday, the House pulled the item from a committee agenda, essentially tabling the discussion.
After the Confederate monuments’ removal, Johnson said, it will be interesting to see what happens with proposed monuments. Johnson points to the work of students at Raleigh Charter High School, whose Freedom Struggle Committee has proposed a memorial to lynching victims in North Carolina.
That’s a good place to start, Johnson said, but she believes the state needs to honor Native Americans in North Carolina as well.
For more than a century, North Carolina has erected memorials that largely reflect white supremacy and commemorate wars, their heroes and their dead. “We have an overabundance of war memorials still,” Johnson said. “I’m not one for tit-for-tat, but I am one who wants to see as much of the North Carolina story expressed on the North Carolina State Capitol grounds as possible.”
What stands in these honored spaces matters, Johnson said, as much as what no longer stands there. “We should create conversation around who we are as a state, what is important to us,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to litter the ground with a bunch of monuments, but we should have some things that say ‘Here are some people who have been important to our state, historically and culturally.’ That whole story hasn’t been told.”
The Historical Commission is more diverse now than it was two years ago. Johnson is one of four non-white members — along with David Dennard and Darrin Waters, who are Black, and Malinda Maynor Lowery, who is Native American. That diversity may change the way the commission deals with issues, Johnson said — and the last few weeks show that the state’s history is more relevant than ever.
Weeks of international protests against police violence and systemic racism sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police have led to new momentum for removing the names and images celebrating the Confederacy and white supremacist figures from public spaces. And last week, the family of Josephus Daniels voluntarily removed his statue from Nash Square in downtown Raleigh.
Daniels, a former publisher of Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper, was a prominent white supremacist who used the paper’s influence to promote racist policies. Infamously, he stoked racial hatred that helped lead to the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, in which white supremacists killed at least 60 Black Wilmington residents while overthrowing the town’s elected mixed-race government.
On the same day his 8-foot statue was removed from its place overlooking the former News & Observer building, the Wake County School Board unanimously voted to remove Daniels’ name from a Raleigh middle school. This week, N.C. State stripped Daniels’ name from a a building on its campus and a Confederate monument was voluntarily removed from in front of the Pitt County Courthouse in Greenville.
“I’m glad that we are having this moment in this country and in our state,” Johnson said. “But our thinking about these things has to go beyond and last beyond this moment.”