Mecklenburg County plans to protect vandalized Confederate monument

A Confederate monument in Charlotte was vandalized for the second time in three weeks. The Confederate monument on North Kings Drive, between the Grady Cole Center and Memorial Stadium, was spray painted on both sides.
A Confederate monument in Charlotte was vandalized for the second time in three weeks. The Confederate monument on North Kings Drive, between the Grady Cole Center and Memorial Stadium, was spray painted on both sides. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

After paying twice to clean a Confederate monument defaced near Central Piedmont Community College, Mecklenburg County plans to find ways to safeguard the historic pillar against future vandalism.

While there are no concrete plans in the works just yet, a county spokesman said Friday that one idea includes installing security cameras overlooking the granite marker, which sits perched on a hill under a tree at the Grady Cole Center on North Kings Drive.

“The cost of putting in a video surveillance system is less than cleaning it,” said county commissioner Bill James, a history enthusiast. “If people allow Confederate monuments to be vandalized, it will give a license to people to vandalize MLK monuments or monuments of pretty much anybody anyplace. … You have to find a way to protect the monuments that exist.”

The monument was unveiled in 1929 during the 39th reunion of the United Confederate Veterans and was engraved with language some consider racist. The monument’s inscription hails Confederate soldiers for “preserving the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say someone vandalized the monument early last week, spray painting on top of an inscription the names of eight of nine victims killed in the June mass shootings at a historic black church in Charleston. Three weeks earlier, someone smeared the monument with liquid cement.

The county contracted a private firm to clean it both times; the first cleaning cost $370 and the second $380.

National debate about Confederate imagery surged when photos of Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag surfaced after his arrest.

Then came a rash of vandalism on Confederate monuments throughout the South, including at least eight incidents reported in North Carolina.

In response, state lawmakers passed a measure that makes it harder to remove historic monuments and markers. That makes any discussion about removing the county’s monument a moot point, commissioner George Dunlap said.

Instead, the conversation has turned to curtailing crime. “I think the minute you arrest people, prosecute them and throw them in jail, it will stop,” James said.

He questioned if police were taking the incidents seriously, saying “the only reason this is going on is because people think they can get away with it.”

“There’s no such thing as a little acceptable vandalism,” he said.

A CMPD spokeswoman said the incidents are still under investigation, although no arrests have been made. She said “anything further is part of the investigation.”

What about a plaque?

County commissioners debated the monument once before but, after venting their opinions, tabled the talk without revisiting the topic. Now that it seems outrage against the monument hasn’t dissipated, the board is thrust into a position where some in the public are looking to them for action.

“Something has to be done,” said Les Brown, a retired biologist and professor emeritus of English at Gardner-Webb University who emailed commissioners last week with his “simple solution” to derailing vandalism: Erect a “disclaimer plaque” that would explain the historic monument does not reflect “contemporary values of tolerance and unity today but remains as a part of Southern history.”

Brown said two commissioners answered his email. He characterized their responses as “pretty vanilla.”

That’s likely because there’s no general consensus among board members on how to cool tempers about the monument.

“If it continues to be an issue, I guess that’s something we’ll have to address at that time,” commissioner Dunlap said. “It doesn’t make sense to clean it up if the same thing is going to happen. I don’t really think sentiments are going to change that quickly.”

Although he wants the vandalism to stop, James is skeptical a plaque will achieve desired results.

“It just isn’t feasible to place an alternative opinion marker every place there is a Confederate one,” James said in an email. “No one is placing ‘alternative opinion’ markers next to the Arch of Titus in Rome, and it glorifies the destruction of Jerusalem and the sacking of the Jewish temple. It is history, and history is messy.”

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who said a monument marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1960 visit to Charlotte could be placed near the 1929 pillar, also doubts a marker explaining today’s attitudes on race will keep criminals at bay.

“I do not believe that vandals will sneak up to the monument with a can of spray paint, see a sign stating that the monument no longer reflects the views of the community and then go on their way without damaging the monument,” he said in an email. “The very existence of the monument is the offense, and no plaque will overcome that.”

He adds: “A plaque would merely serve as a symbolic hand-washing.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

Status of defaced city Confederate monument

A marble Confederate monument erected in 1977 at the Old City Hall on Trade Street and defaced in July remains in a city warehouse, where it’s expected to be cleaned, city officials said. There are plans to return the monument once it is cleaned.