Do Confederate memorials honor soldiers killed in war or memorialize racism?

A statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and its planned removal by the city, sparked the violence between white supremacists and counter-protesters that left a woman dead and dozens injured Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.

Confederate memorials in the Charlotte area have also become flashpoints in the debate over race and history – sometimes overnight. By Sunday, a memorial in Cornelius already wore an X in blue spray paint over the words “Our Confederate Soldiers.”

The memorial, an obelisk topped by the statue of a soldier, is privately owned by the Mt. Zion Monumental Association. A police report estimated the damage, which was discovered Sunday morning, at $1,500.

The Cornelius monument was one of three local memorials that were previously vandalized in mid-2015, in the weeks after white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine people at an African-American church in Charleston.

To some, the 120 Civil War memorials that honor Confederate soldiers in North Carolina are eternal reminders of the nation’s white-dominated past. To others, they honor the state that sent more men to fight for the Confederacy than any other and lost 40,000 of them.

“They all should be removed,” the Rev. Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte NAACP, told reporters Monday. “We should not be uplifting a statue of Robert E. Lee, we should not be uplifting a Confederate flag.”

Dan Morrill, consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, calls it “treacherous” to try to place yesterday’s relics in today’s contexts.

“History is not the past. The past is the past,” said Morrill, who taught history at UNC Charlotte for 51 years. “History is human interpretation of the past, and our interpretation of the past always changes according to what the circumstances and values of today are.”

What’s relevant now, he said, is tolerance, acceptance of diversity and respect for people of different backgrounds.

“Public policy needs to choose those pieces ... that help us build a better tomorrow,” he said, “because tomorrow is all we have. We can’t do a doggone thing to change yesterday.”

Two Confederate monuments in Charlotte were targeted after the Charleston shootings.

One, dating to a 1929 reunion of the United Confederate Veterans, still stands between the Grady Cole Center and American Memorial Stadium on North Kings Drive. Its inscription hails soldiers for “preserving the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South.”

The monument was vandalized twice in three weeks in 2015. It’s now encased in a clear protective case.

The other monument, erected in 1977 by the Confederate Memorial Association of Charlotte, stood at Old City Hall on Trade Street. That monument lauds the “brave soldiers of the South (who) struggled nobly for the cause of independence and constitutional self-government.”

It has since been moved to city-owned Elmwood Cemetery, where a granite obelisk honoring Confederate soldiers overlooks veterans’ graves.

Also in 2015, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte said it would remove a stone monument at the Dowd YMCA to the North Carolina Military Institute, which opened in 1859 at East Morehead Street and South Boulevard. The school later became a Confederate military hospital and prison, with many of the soldiers who died there buried in a cemetery behind the building.

Something else moved shortly after the 2015 Charleston massacre: North Carolina’s legislature.

Lawmakers passed a law protecting “objects of remembrance” on public property, such as historical monuments, plaques and statues, from permanent removal with some exceptions.

“History needs to be retained – you don’t know who you are without history,” Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican, said during committee debate of the measure. “I don’t think the government has the right to change what history is.”

Staff writer Jim Morrill and researcher Maria David contributed.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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