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Mecklenburg commissioners debate Confederate memorial

The monument shrouded by foliage and shrubbery between Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center on Kings Drive was erected in 1929 during the United Confederate Veterans’ 39th reunion and features the Confederate flag four times.
The monument shrouded by foliage and shrubbery between Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center on Kings Drive was erected in 1929 during the United Confederate Veterans’ 39th reunion and features the Confederate flag four times. Charlotte Observer file photo

The public and Mecklenburg County commissioners on Tuesday night debated whether an obscure Confederate memorial on county property should be removed.

Their discussion reflected the divisive pleas from residents who spoke for and against keeping the memorial near Memorial Stadium on North Kings Drive.

Commissioners did not make a decision about the monument and will consider their options in he midst of a nationwide debate about public display of the Confederate battle flag.

About 10 members of the public addressed commissioners. Some urged policymakers to remove the monument, saying they feel it symbolizes and promotes white supremacy and racist attitudes. Others chided commissioners for even considering removing pieces of history.

“Once you move one monument, I don’t see how you’re going to stop people from wanting to move every other monument,” said Joseph Turner, who said his ancestors fought in the Civil War. “I’m not a white supremacist and I’m not advocating any language like that. They’re veterans. They should be given respect like any veteran.”

The monument stands shrouded by foliage and shrubbery between Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center. It was erected in 1929 during the United Confederate Veterans’ 39th reunion and features the Confederate flag four times.

The structure has historic designation, meaning the county would need a certificate from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission before making any changes to the site.

“Its language is dated and expresses segregationist values and sentiments that are no longer acceptable,” landmarks commission President Dan Morrill said. “In essence, the monument is a product of its time. A very different time.”

Morrill told commissioners about several other monuments in the county linked with the Confederacy – the largest one being a pillar on private property in Cornelius that honors fallen soldiers. Other monuments are on public property, including sidewalk plaques, street markers on South Tryon Street in uptown and the former Charlotte City Hall on East Trade Street.

The most “evocative” memorial, he said, is an obelisk at Elmwood Cemetery that depicts the original, secession North Carolina flag.

Gary Ritter, a history instructor at Central Piedmont Community College, asked commissioners to remove it, saying the pillar was part of a “propaganda campaign in support of white supremacy.”

“This is not to say we should erase history – far from it,” he said. “This history should be studied, explored and discussed. There are many opportunities for that in books and museums.”

William Grice said it was an “absolute disgrace” that commissioners were considering disturbing the monument. “Blacks owned slaves, too,” he said.

Democratic commissioner George Dunlap told fellow board members that he hopes they don’t spend more time discussing an issue the media raised. County Manager Dena Diorio said she became aware of the memorial after a media outlet asked her about it.

“When you start messing with one person’s history, then they want to mess with your history,” Dunlap said. “I know walking past that monument might be hurtful to some but it is what it is. It’s not my history but it’s history, and I think we ought to look at it as such.”

Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour lamented recent widespread criticism about the South.

“I think there’s so much we’re missing about our history,” Ridenhour said. “If a monument isn’t safe to reflect a period of time, then what’s the monument for? I don’t think we need to hide our scars ... in an effort not to offend other people.”

He offered a suggestion: Instead of removing the monument or erecting a plaque next to it, add a monument of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Grady Cole Center.

Some commissioners wanted to table their discussion about the monument. “At this time, there is no issue in Mecklenburg County and therefore, I actually ask that this conversation cease,” said Democratic commissioner Ella Scarborough. “It has done nothing for the county.”

Others felt differently.

“The reason we’re talking about this is that nine people were murdered using the very symbol that has been used for over a century ... to disenfranchise and dismember” minorities, said board Chairman Trevor Fuller. “If you’re comfortable with that, perhaps you do nothing about it.”

Other action

▪ Commissioners unanimously approved a 4.5 percent salary increase for County Manager Dena Diorio, and included a market-rate adjustment for her job that raises her pay from $238,260 a year to $286,000.

▪ Commissioners approved Foundation for the Carolinas’ request for a $4.2 million grant to aid in the renovation of the Carolina Theatre with plans to reopen it as a civic and arts center. The foundation raised $27 million in private money before seeking public funds. The county’s funding gives the foundation $31.2 million of its $35 million fundraising goal. President Michael Marsicano said the group will continue to raise private money.

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