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Dowd YMCA plans to remove monument with Confederate battle flag carving

A stone monument at the Dowd YMCA sits on the East Morehead Street side of the property near the sidewalk. The monument celebrates cadets who attended the North Carolina Military Institute in the late 1850s and early 1860s. During renovations to the Dowd, the YMCA wants to remove the monument, which contains an image of the Confederate battle flag.
A stone monument at the Dowd YMCA sits on the East Morehead Street side of the property near the sidewalk. The monument celebrates cadets who attended the North Carolina Military Institute in the late 1850s and early 1860s. During renovations to the Dowd, the YMCA wants to remove the monument, which contains an image of the Confederate battle flag. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

On the cusp of a $20 million renovation to its flagship location in uptown, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte plans to remove a stone monument that’s stood on its property for 21 years – a move that’s drawn criticism from local historians who want the marker and its associated history to remain untouched.

Last month, the YMCA sent a letter to the Charlotte chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, telling them it planned to remove a number of structures from its Dowd Y on East Morehead Street to clear the way for construction next year.

That includes a stone monument to the North Carolina Military Institute that’s been displayed at the Dowd YMCA since June 1994. Along with celebrating cadets who attended the school, the pillar displays a carving of the Confederate battle flag on its front.

It also bears the name of two organizations that want it kept in place: The Sons of Confederate Veterans, who raised about $3,500 to have the marker installed, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who have a bronze plaque attached to the monument’s back.

“We would like to give both organizations the opportunity to collect this marker,” Chris Orr, executive director of the Dowd YMCA, wrote in the letter. “As the monument is not owned by the YMCA, and it does not reference or represent the YMCA, we do not have plans to display the monument following construction.”

That doesn’t sit well with local historian Larry Walker who, in 1994, helped raise money for the marker. Back then, the YMCA agreed to allow monument to go up at the site, he said. Now, he’s leading the charge in trying to keep it there.

The YMCA’s decision comes amid national outcry against Confederate imagery, which surged after photos surfaced of Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof posing with a Confederate battle flag.

Since then, at least eight Confederate monuments in North Carolina have been defaced, including two in Charlotte. City and Mecklenburg County officials have taken steps to clean and safeguard the pillars against future vandalism.

“We’re hoping to convince the folks at the Y to leave the monument where it is,” Walker said. “There is a lot of history at that site that precedes the Y by 100 years.”

Historic site

The Dowd YMCA sits on property that once housed military prisoners and was a burial ground for Confederate soldiers.

In 1859, the North Carolina Military Institute opened at East Morehead Street and South Boulevard as a military academy. It was patterned after West Point in New York.

After many of its students were sent to serve as drill masters in war, the school shut down and became a Confederate military hospital and prison. Many soldiers who died there were buried in a cemetery behind the building.

The institute later housed the Mecklenburg Female College, and then the Charlotte Military Institute, a private school for boys. In the 1880s, it was turned into the South Graded School, Charlotte’s first tax-supported public school. It remained in use until the building was razed in 1954. In 1960, the site became home to the Dowd YMCA.

Dan Morrill, professor emeritus of history at UNC Charlotte, emailed Orr, asking him to consider the “rich history of the site before the YMCA acquired it.” He plans to meet with Orr about the issue next week.

“I’m not saying that it’s absolutely essential that all monuments stay but I think they need to be very carefully considered,” Morrill said. “History is so incredibly fundamental. When you start tampering with it, you’re doing something that’s very, very significant.”

Reason for the change

Orr said the YMCA isn’t trying to erase history, and is seeking ways to “honor that history inside our branch when construction is complete.”

The YMCA announced in March plans to remodel its aging building, consolidate offices above the gym, while adding a parking deck, more workout and class space, and a new glass and steel facade. The work, expected to take at least 18 months, includes removing trees and plants, signs, benches and flag poles from the area.

The monument is the only item on the property that doesn’t belong to the YMCA, Orr said. Because it also “challenges our Y’s commitment to welcome all, we have decided that it will not be replaced following construction.”

Orr added: “In no way do we wish to...show any disrespect (to) any person who works to celebrate heritage and honor ancestors.”

Monument supporters are skeptical that recent furor about Confederate symbols doesn’t play a part in the YMCA’s plans.

“I just term it as temporary national hysteria to get away from anything to do with Confederate symbols,” Walker said.

A YMCA spokeswoman said no customers have complained about the monument this year but there have been questions about it in the past.

“I do not recall any time anyone has ever called to have it removed,” said Brian Allmon, commander of the Charlotte-based Stonewall Jackson Camp No. 23 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It’s a very significant area in Charlotte that doesn’t need to be swept under the rug for PC (political correctness).”

If the battle flag is at issue, Allmon said the groups are willing to cover the engraving with an image that displays how the N.C. Military Institute looked in its heyday. Walker added that a photograph of the school and hospital could be “burned” into a piece of metal large enough to cover the flag.

“We understand that it does hurt some people’s feelings to see that flag,” Allmon said.

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

Honoring the Y’s history

Chris Orr, executive director of the Dowd YMCA, said there are talks about preserving the history of the Dowd site while also honoring the Y’s own history. That might include something to honor the past board chairs and people involved in the YMCA since it opened, and paying homage to the late Delois Huntley, who integrated Alexander Graham Junior High School in 1957 when it was on the site.

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