Two days after protesters forcefully removed the “Silent Sam” statue in Chapel Hill, a dramatic scene that fetched jeers from many state leaders and cheers from long-time Confederate statue critics, members of a key state commission voted against the removal of three similar monuments to Confederate soldiers in downtown Raleigh.
The North Carolina Historical Commission voted 9-2 Wednesday against their removal, but only after a morning filled with hand-wringing and personal statements.
“[G]iven the specific legislative prohibition against the removal of objects of remembrance, the Commission at this time is unable to recommend the removal or relocation of the three Confederate monuments because removal or relocation is not required to preserve these three monuments,” the committee’s resolution on the matter read.
The commissioners took pains to say they believe the number and prominence of Confederate monuments on the State Capitol grounds both distort the history and causes of the war. They also noted the statues insult Black residents and other minorities, some of whom may be offended by their presence. Commission members called on Gov. Roy Cooper, the General Assembly and the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to mitigate that by providing signage to contextualize the statues and erect new ones that are more diverse and inclusive.
But ultimately, the majority on the commission said, they felt constrained by current law to keep the statues.
The decision referred to the 2015 law  passed as momentum built throughout southern states to remove Confederate monuments. The law sets out narrow circumstances under which such statues can be removed or relocated. Beyond requiring that the statues be moved only to preserve them or if necessitated by construction, the law also says they must be moved to a comparable place of prominence. That would be difficult, the commission said, given that they now occupy one of the most prominent places in the State Capitol.
At issue are three monuments on the Capitol grounds, among about a dozen other statues. They are:
- The 75-foot Capitol Confederate Monument, erected in 1895, which commemorates North Carolina’s “Confederate dead.”
- The Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, erected in 1912, which commemorates the first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War combat at the Battle of Bethel on June 10, 1861.
- The Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, erected in 1914.
Cooper petitioned the commission to relocate the statues to the Bentonville battlefield in Johnston County. After the toppling of a Confederate statue in Durham last year and of the “Silent Sam” monument this week, many argued the statues in Raleigh are actually in danger and need to be moved in order to preserve them.
But Valerie Johnson and Noah Reynolds, the two commissioners who cast “no” votes, said the statues should be removed for more fundamental reasons.
Johnson is the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Africana Women’s Studies at Greensboro’s Bennett College and chair of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. She is also one of only two Black members of the 17-member Historical Commission .
“I write this as a Black woman, mother, anthropologist, queer, worker, North Carolina resident and descendant of the Gullah Geechee people,” Johnson said while reading from a prepared statement Wednesday. “None of these identities are reflected by the current monuments on the State Capitol grounds.”
The statues were erected well after the war, in a white supremacist wave during the Jim Crow era , Johnson said. Those who erected them were open about their goal to create white supremacist monuments to the lost cause of preserving slavery.
“They were erected during a time when active legal and illegal acts of terrorism were perpetrated against persons who were considered non-white,” said Johnson. “Indigenous North Carolinians, Jews, Blacks, browns and others. At present, the State Capitol grounds reflect an immorality that is not acceptable.”
Johnson said she has heard it said that removing the statues amounts to erasing history, but disagrees.
“Removal is not erasure,” Johnson said. “It is creating a space that reflects all North Carolinians and their contributions to our state. These memorials to white supremacy should not continue to be on our public grounds.”
Reynolds, the great-grandson of the founder of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, recounted his family’s complicated history with racial issues. His ancestors owned slaves on a large scale, he said, and Black people were employees and domestic help when he was growing up. But as a young adult he became more personally aware of the struggles of Black people in America and in our state — both historically and in the modern day. He began attending a Black church in Winston-Salem and was baptized and married by Black pastors who became close family friends.
Reynolds said he agrees with those who say the monument issue should be taken up by elected officials rather than the Historical Commission. But they haven’t done so.
“The persistent inaction, inflexibility and insensitivity of the General Assembly has caused me to act,” Reynolds said.
That persistent inaction — from the General Assembly and the UNC Board of Governors — likely led to the toppling of the Silent Sam monument, Reynolds said. Now, he said, it should lead the commission to take action rather than defer to an unjust law.
“There are two types of laws,” Reynolds quoted from a Martin Luther King Jr. letter written in an Alabama jail in 1963 . “Just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
Before the commission’s final vote, Wednesday’s meeting was briefly interrupted when a woman rose in the audience to read a prepared statement on the statues. The woman, who police later identified as 35-year-old Ashley Popio of Raleigh, was forcibly ejected from the room, cuffed and taken away in a State Capitol Police vehicle.
Authorities said she was cited for intentionally causing a public disturbance and obstructing a police officer, both misdemeanors. She was released after her citation, police said.
Moments later, Gabrielle Middlebrooks of the Workers World Party of Durham condemned the arrest and the commission’s decision. She said she wasn’t impressed by the commissioners’ condemnation of slavery and the Confederacy as it wasn’t backed up with action.
“It’s 2018,” Middlebrooks said. “Are we really going to give out cookies for condemning keeping people as property?”
Middlebrooks rejected the idea of re-contextualizing the Confederate monuments with new signage.
“All of these statues should be removed,” Middlebrooks said. “There is no need to re-contextualize white supremacy. We know what the Confederacy stood for. Their speeches were public. The speech that was made during the dedication of Silent Sam openly called for white supremacy and celebrated the fact that a Black woman was beaten nearly to death for making fun of a white woman on the streets of Chapel Hill. White supremacy has no place in Wake County, it has no place in Durham County, it has no place in Orange County.”
“I’m sick of the Confederacy, I’m sick of white supremacy, I’m sick of feeling like a f****** n***** in this state!” Middlebrooks continued. “I’m a person, I deserve to be treated like it, I deserve to feel like it every place that I go — including the State Capitol, where I pay my goddamn taxes!”
The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP said he was deeply disappointed by the commission’s decision.
“When I heard the committee members expressing themselves, I thought there might be some change that would occur,” Spearman said after the meeting. “I thought they were in their hearts. But it seemed not too soon after that, they vacated their hearts and went back to their heads or whatever place they went to. And they came away from it really doing nothing — a measure of futility, for the most part.”
Spearman said there is a growing frustration with the inability of the people of the state — especially minorities — to be heard by their government.
“It seems to me that if justice is going to be done in the state of North Carolina, it’s going to be found outside of the law,” Spearman said. “What I mean by that is we’re going to have to really need to consider how we can begin changing policies that are entrenching these kinds of emblems of hate in this state. Because even to move and replace it somewhere else is to transport hate to another place.”
Spearman said he does not agree with pulling down statues when they can’t be removed by other means — but he understands why it happens.
“I’m not condoning protesters taking down statues,” Spearman said. “I’m not condoning the destruction of property. But I think we need to recognize that folks sometimes when they get upset and frustrated, these are going to be the repercussions. And we need to do something to keep those repercussions from happening.”
Frank Powell, representing the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he considered the committee’s decision the best outcome for his group. He expressed skepticism about new signage contextualizing the monuments because, he said, it was clear some of the members of the Historical Commission had the wrong idea about the history and causes of the Civil War. He would reject any language that suggested slavery was the only cause of the war, he said.
He said he also rejected historians’ conclusions that these monuments were erected as part of a wave of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era. It simply took that long for a devastated South — particularly North Carolina — to be able to afford monuments to those who fought for the Confederacy, he said.
“The fact that it coincided with the Jim Crow era is just a coincidence,” he said.
While criticizing protesters who broke the law in bringing down statues, Powell was asked if he and his group believe people should not have defied then-legal segregation in protest as part of the Civil Rights movement.
Powell said he and his group have no position on that.
Gov. Cooper and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) both issued statements on the commission’s decision Wednesday afternoon.
“It is time for North Carolina to realize that we can document and learn from our history without idolizing painful symbols,” Cooper said in the statement. “The General Assembly needs to change its 2015 law so our state and its people have a better path to remove or relocate these monuments safely, and I urge those who object to the monuments to call on their legislators to change the law and support legislative candidates who want to move our state forward.”
Cooper addressed the toppling of the Silent Sam monument in the statement as well, making the link between that monument and those in Raleigh that many members of the commission did Wednesday.
“The actions that toppled Silent Sam bear witness to the strong feelings many North Carolinians have about Confederate monuments,” Cooper said. “I don’t agree with or condone the way that monument came down, but protesters concluded that their leaders would not – could not — act on the frustration and pain it caused. I acknowledge, too, those who believe these monuments should stay as they are because they symbolize our history. But they are just one part of our history. North Carolina is welcoming to all, and our most prominent public places should reflect that.”
Berger also alluded to Silent Sam’s destruction.
“”I support the committee’s recommendations and pledge to work with my colleagues to implement them,” Berger said in his statement. “The thoughtful and deliberative process stands in stark contrast to the mob rule from earlier this week. When people with different perspectives come together in good faith, we can solve problems.”