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Defaced memorial stirred controversy from beginning

The defaced Confederate monument at Old City Hall on Trade Street is being restored.The monument was erected in 1977.
The defaced Confederate monument at Old City Hall on Trade Street is being restored.The monument was erected in 1977. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Ten days after a Confederate monument on city property was vandalized, it remains in a city warehouse as officials decide how to clean and safeguard it.

Police say someone spray-painted the memorial at Old City Hall on Trade Street with the word “Racist.” City officials removed the six-foot tall monument, one of eight Confederate memorials defaced in North Carolina within a month.

The memorial drew controversy at its installation in 1977.

I don’t think placing a monument in a place in this city...to honor soldiers who fought in the defense of slavery is right.

Harvey Gantt, circa May 1977

Charlotte City Council discovered the monument, funded by the Charlotte Confederate Monument Association, had been erected on city property without the council’s approval. Former Mayor Harvey Gantt – then a City Council member – criticized it, saying displaying the memorial at City Hall would be offensive.

“I don’t think placing a monument in a place in this city...to honor soldiers who fought in the defense of slavery is right,” he’s quoted saying in the May 17, 1977, Observer. “I think my opinion is shared by most black Americans and many white Americans...and I will say it as loud and as clear as I can.”

Larry Walker Jr., a Charlottean and Vietnam War veteran, raised $706 to put the marker on a foundation laid by the city’s landscaping supervisor.

Walker said L. Paul Bobo, the assistant city manager, approved the project and knew about plans for the monument for a year.

...He has his Martin Luther King monument to his cultural heritage. I ought to be able to have a monument to my cultural heritage.

Larry Walker, circa May 1977

Nearly a week after it went up, Bobo said at a council meeting he didn’t know city employees approved the site. City Council took no action, though the monument was already in place.

Walker wasn’t pleased with Gantt’s objections.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I thought Mr. Gantt would object,” Walker told a reporter that week. “But after all, he has his Martin Luther King monument to his cultural heritage. I ought to be able to have a monument to my cultural heritage, which is, after all, the cultural heritage of the majority, which is white Americans.”

Five days later, the monument was dedicated in a ceremony that drew 57 people. Mayor John Belk and the City Council were invited to attend. None did.

The next week, City Council voted 5-1 to allow the monument to stay on City Hall’s front lawn. Gantt dissented.

He said: “I think that the war that was fought 100 years ago had everything to do with a way of life that subjugated me and many others. ... The question of the monument may be a silly thing, but it is symbolic. We need to do things that will heal this community.”

Opinions today

Almost four decades later, the monument has created tension again.

“It is still unknown how long the (cleaning) process will take,” said city spokeswoman Nicole Ramsey.

The spray paint seeped into the marble’s pores, “requiring a more aggressive cleaning and restoration process for full removal,” she said. The city is handling the cleaning, unlike Mecklenburg County, which contracted a private company to clean a Confederate monument on county property that was defaced the same day.

Officials plan to return the monument to Old City Hall once it’s restored. But if there are calls for it to go elsewhere, City Council will have to vote, City Manager Ron Carlee said.

“That’s a policy issue for them. I’ve been focused on the maintenance part of it,” he said. “We’re focused on getting it cleaned up and trying to figure out what we can do so that it stays in good repair when we put it back up.”

Allowing such a tribute on public property not only demonstrated a lack of awareness and appreciation for a sizable segment of the community, but it was also downright stupid.

David Goldfield, Southern history professor at UNC Charlotte

David Goldfield, a UNC Charlotte professor of Southern history, disapproves of vandalizing artifacts. But, he said, public officials should not have allowed such memorials that “essentially celebrate slavery and white supremacy.”

“I don’t blame the organizations that paid for and planted these memorials. I blame the civic leaders for their shortsightedness, especially those from 1977,” he said.

“Allowing such a tribute on public property not only demonstrated a lack of awareness and appreciation for a sizable segment of the community, but it was also downright stupid.”

Dan Morrill, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, said the monument is “extraordinarily different” from the Mecklenburg County monument, created in 1929, which notes soldiers fought for the “Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South.”

The city monument, he said, “certainly contains no explicit references to white supremacy.” It honors soldiers who “struggled nobly for the cause of independence and constitutional self-government.”

Karen Cox, a professor at UNCC who specializes in Southern history and culture, said state and local governments are considering Confederate monuments only as isolated tributes to soldiers and ignoring a cultural history of white supremacy.

“It has to be seen in its entire whole,” she said. “It can’t be extracted from that historical context. Context is everything.”

Cox said even if some politicians today aren’t making clear statements backing the monuments, their maintenance of them indicates their support.

“The fact that they want to pay somebody to clean them up is saying, ‘We think they are all right, right where they are,’” she said.

About 900 soldiers from Mecklenburg County died in the Civil War, according to Larry Walker.

Walker, Gantt today

Today, Walker, the fundraiser, maintains the city monument is not racist.

“It’s a small minority of people that believe these memorials are a symbol of racism,” he said. “An even smaller number of people ... either cowardly or ignorant or both, would try to deface a historical memorial. You’re talking about a fringe group.”

64% of white people see Confederate battle flag as Southern pride symbol

19% of black people see the flag that way

Now, Gantt doesn’t criticize the monument. City Council approved it then, and “maybe it ought to stay,” he said.

But installing it in 1977, he said, was poor timing.

Had it gone up decades earlier, “I would have said maybe that’s the sentiment of how people actually felt back then,” he said. “But in 1977, I just thought it was inappropriate for us to celebrate it on city property.”

“I was in the minority.”

However, he doesn’t agree that monuments to Martin Luther King Jr. or other civil rights leaders should be compared to pillars hailing Confederate soldiers.

“To make a comparison between Martin Luther King and a monument to celebrate a movement that was designed to keep African Americans enslaved – it’s just not an appropriate comparison.”

Monument vandalism

This summer, North Carolina has seen a rash of vandalism of Confederate monuments, as has the rest of the nation.

At least eight prominent memorials have been spray-painted or smeared with cement since late June, amid debate over such markers – heightened by the killings of nine black people in a Charleston church in June.

69% of people saw Confederate battle flag as a Southern pride symbol in 1992

54% of people feel that way today

State lawmakers this week passed a bill that will make it harder to remove historical monuments, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed Thursday.

The majority of the country sees the Confederate battle flag “more as a symbol of Southern pride” than as a “symbol of racism,” according to Gallup polls. That percentage decreased from 69 percent in 1992 to 54 percent early this month. Opinions today fall heavily along lines of race, with only 19 percent of black people seeing the flag as demonstrating Southern pride, compared to 64 percent of white people.

In some ways, they’re sort of fulfilling what (Dylann) Roof wanted to have happen.

Dan Morrill, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte NAACP, said any pillar bearing Confederate symbols should be in a museum, not on government property.

“It should not be on any building that taxpayers pay for,” she said. “It is a hurtful ... history for African-Americans. We shouldn’t get rid of it; we should put it somewhere where people can take time to come and learn what this country was built on.”

Morrill, of the landmarks commission, believes that criticism of the monuments shouldn’t be expressed by damaging property.

“Somebody who goes with a can of spray paint and squirts ‘Racist’ on a monument, in my judgment, is not working towards...trying to resolve the issues that impinged on our society for so long,” he said. “In some ways, they’re sort of fulfilling what (Charleston shooting suspect Dylann) Roof wanted to have happen.”

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