Gastonia’s 105-year-old Confederate soldier occupies one of the most serene posts in a race-roiled America.
The unnamed granite Rebel literally rises above the hubbub of trials and lawsuits at the Gaston County Courthouse. From his pedestal some 30 feet high, he looks out on rain-lush August trees and a street recently renamed to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
In the past week, Confederate monuments have become the focus of a bloody white nationalist march and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va.; an unauthorized toppling of a statue in Durham and a city-sponsored overnight removal campaign in Baltimore.
But dozens more sit quietly in towns across the Carolinas. They range from small markers to Gastonia’s towering column to a Confederate Park in Fort Mill, S.C., which includes a tribute to “faithful slaves” who fought for the South. Charlotte has two, including one that hails soldiers for “preserving the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South.”
The markers tend to fade into a community’s background until national events force scrutiny.
“Gaston County is kind of a redneck town,” said Barbara Lane of Belmont, who came to the Gaston courthouse Thursday to pick up a document. To her, “redneck” is an affectionate term for the blue-collar culture she embraces.
“We’re kind of proud of our Confederate heritage. It’s not any kind of racial thing,” said Lane, who is white. “We have ancestors that fought in that war and we’re proud of them.”
Open racial conflict is rare in this county just west of Charlotte, where more than three-quarters of residents are white. Two summers ago, after the Charleston church massacre led to calls for removing Confederate flags, about 150 people rallied at the base of the courthouse monument to insist that honoring the Confederacy doesn’t equate to racial hate and white supremacy. No opposing views were aired.
But America is in turmoil, and change is spilling into every community. Chris Thomason, a 49-year-old Gastonia native who heads the Gaston County branch of the NAACP, says he has always tried to lead with love and be open to other views. But now, he says, it’s time to draw a line: Confederate monuments must be moved off public property, perhaps to a museum where people can choose to visit and learn.
“I can’t imagine how my forefathers and the elders of my community feel when they’re forced to see that type of monument in a public place,” Thomason said Thursday.
At least one other person has called the Gaston County manager’s office saying there will be a petition to move the monument.
That’s unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future: State law prohibits it and there’s little interest among county commissioners, all of them white, male and Republican.
“I find it hard to believe, with all the real challenges we have in the world today, we’re having a conversation about something that’s historic,” said Commissioner Bob Hovis. “I guess we’re going to have to end up with dynamite on Mount Rushmore, taking faces off Mount Rushmore, before this is over.”
But as a striking symbol of one perspective on history – a perspective that flourished at a time when black progress was being rolled back and Jim Crow was emerging – Gastonia’s lofty soldier may spark a re-examination of what it means to be white, what it means to be black and what it means to be Southern.
Birth of a monument
When the Confederacy was forming, Gaston County was a reluctant participant, says Jason Luker, director of the Gaston County Museum of Art and History. Many residents wanted to stay in the Union, but when North Carolina seceded and went to war, Gaston’s men enlisted.
“Once they were in, they were in,” Luker says.
More than 40 years after the Civil War ended, the Gaston chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Children of the Confederacy raised $3,000 for the monument to the county’s soldiers. It features a soldier holding the barrel of his rifle as he looks into the distance, with a Confederate flag on a broken staff engraved on the base.
The monument went in front of the county’s then-new courthouse in downtown Gastonia. At the 1912 dedication, documents reflect that all the city’s white children lined the streets. “They make a point to say all the white children,” Luker said. The monument was part of the Lost Cause movement of that time, in which the nobility of the Confederate cause was celebrated as racism flourished.
The Ku Klux Klan had a vigorous presence in Gaston County, one that trickled into the 21st century. Mount Holly resident Virgil Griffin was notorious enough a Klan leader that his 2009 death brought a New York Times obituary, though he was trounced on his home turf when he tried to run for N.C. House in 1994.
When the county opened a new courthouse in 1998, the monument moved a few blocks north, to what was then Marietta Street. It was later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Luker, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., says he’s struck by how little Gaston residents like to talk about the painful or controversial pages of their history, including race and civil rights. When he raised such issues, he said, “the go-to answer was, ‘That’s just something we don’t talk about.’ ”
For Thomason, the low-key approach made Gastonia a good place to grow up.
“In my childhood there was no race,” he recalls. “In my home, I didn’t know I was African-American. I didn’t know I was a little black boy.”
That changed in high school, when he drove a school bus and had to maintain order with younger riders. Some parents let him know in the clearest possible language that he had no authority over white children.
“It was obvious and apparent to me that this was the old South,” he said.
As an NAACP leader in a majority white county, Thomason says he has learned to make his points carefully.
“That’s kind of how it is in Gaston County,” he said. “You’re very cautious of what you say, how you say it and who you say it to.”
And there are not-so-subtle reminders of the opposition he faces. Two years ago, a Gaston Gazette reporter invited Thomason to be interviewed along with a Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting. Thomason arrived to find the newspaper parking lot full of cars sporting Confederate flags. A contingent of Harley Davidsons decked out in similar gear pulled in behind him.
Thomason and others in Gaston County’s black community say it’s time to push back against symbols that are increasingly being used to advocate overt white supremacy. Thomason says even if some don’t hold such intentions, that’s beside the point: If he learned that something in his yard was giving offense, “it would be gone, out of their view.”
Face of the Confederacy
Bill Starnes was the other person invited to that Gazette interview. A camp commander in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he has become the face of the Confederacy in Gaston County. Starnes recalls that “my guys” came along because they wanted to “watch the debate.”
Starnes is adamant that the Civil War was not about slavery. He cites lengthy historic detail about the other economic factors at play, the role of Northerners in the slave trade and racist remarks from Abraham Lincoln and other Union leaders.
“It was a tariff war,” Starnes says. “It was about taxes.”
Starnes flies an American flag, a Confederate flag and a POW-MIA flag outside his Mount Holly home, which also sports an “Impeach Obozo” sign on his fence. In his view, there are people who agree with his view of history and people who are ignorant. Klansmen and neo-Nazis using Confederate symbols are among the latter, he says – as are people involved with Black Lives Matter and violent antifacist protesters.
“Those idiots with the Klan, the neo-Nazis, they are not America-loving people,” Starnes says. “We don’t have any use for them. I want them to just go away.”
To Starnes, it’s irrelevant that Confederate monuments carry different symbolism to others. They’re wrong and need to be educated, he says. In his recounting, he enlightened Thomason during their “debate” at the Gazette, but that didn’t go both ways.
“He has nothing to teach,” Starnes said. “He’s full of hate.”
No longer quiet
Page Barrett is white, but as a self-described progressive she, too, is aware of being a minority in Gaston County. She grew up in Gaston and neighboring Lincoln County, and returned as an adult to be near her family.
“I used to just kind of go with the flow,” she said, but now “I see the danger of being quiet. You’ve got to rock the boat.”
She rocked it hard last weekend, after she went to confront a fellow Gaston County resident about a Nazi flag flying at his house. A video of her questions, and his obscenity-laced responses, exploded on Facebook, with more than 800,000 views and 12,600 shares in the first few days.
Barrett says she wouldn’t have been as shocked by a Confederate flag, which she doesn’t like but has gotten used to. But she believes white people like her have a duty to confront racism, and that includes the history of the Confederacy.
“History is important. It’s a shameful history. We need to remember that,” she said Friday. “We shouldn’t erect monuments in public places to traitorous racists. At the end of the day, that’s what it was.”
Such voices are growing, even in a county where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin. On Thursday a group of African-American pastors called the Gaston County Progressive Coalition met to talk about the challenges of a resurgent racist movement that embraces symbols of the Confederacy.
Last week the Gaston Gazette carried a front-page column by William Poteat, a white columnist whose great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. He cited Gov. Roy Cooper’s call for the state legislature to rescind the law that protects such memorials.
“As an American, I believe the time is long past to stop giving a tacit blessing to a rebellion that sought to destroy my nation and to perpetuate one of the most evil systems in the history of humanity,” Poteat wrote. “I agree with Gov. Cooper. The monuments need to come down.”
Luker, whose history museum includes a smaller Confederate memorial, says he tries to stay neutral on the politics. But he’s pleased to see the once-reluctant community opening up to a deeper examination of what such symbols mean to all residents.
“Are we honoring all when we say ‘Southern heritage’?” Luker asked. “The big discussion is: Who are we, and do we include all of us?”