When police in Cornelius began investigating the recent vandalism of a Confederate monument in front of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, they uncovered a mystery that went beyond their search for a suspect.
Who was the victim?
The towering statue of a Confederate soldier stares from the front lawn of Mt. Zion across the railroad tracks toward the town whose citizens raised $10,000 more than a century ago to erect it.
On July 20, a Cornelius police officer patrolling near the church discovered the monument had been defaced with graffiti.
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The police and public works departments covered the graffiti with a tarp “due to the offensive content” until whoever maintains and owns the monument can be contacted, Cornelius police spokeswoman Betsy Shores said.
But contacting the owner may prove to be difficult.
“The church does not have the authority to make decisions about the Confederate monument,” said the Rev. Mary John Dye, senior pastor at Mt. Zion United Methodist. “The monument and the property around the monument are not the property of the church.”
Dye said church histories have long reported that the monument and patch of property on which it sits were deeded in 1909 by R.J. Stough, a former Confederate colonel, to a group that led the fundraising effort for a tribute to Confederate veterans, 51 of whom would eventually be buried in the adjacent church cemetery.
A search of county records turned up the document, which confirmed that Stough and his wife, Alice, turned over control of the property to a group of five people (including R.J. Stough himself) designated as “trustees of the Mt. Zion Monument Association.”
According to historical accounts, an estimated 6,000 people attended the monument’s dedication during a reunion of Confederate veterans in 1910.
But that was then. Who controls the monument now?
Mecklenburg County property records list only Mt. Zion United Methodist Church as owner of the monument site. The N.C. Secretary of State’s office lists no organization operating under the name Mt. Zion Monument Association. And Dye said she knows of no modern-day legal custodian of the Mt. Zion Monument Association.
All of which complicates the monument’s contemporary place, and any questions about its future.
“The proximity of the Confederate monument to the church gives the impression that the monument is on church property and, to be sure, there is an interrelationship between people in the congregation and the monument and its ensuing (Confederate veterans) reunions,” Dye said. “It would not be accurate to say that there is, in any way, a philosophical endorsement of or acquiescence to the kind of hatred that surfaced in the shooting in Charleston.”
But if the monument is not on church property, whose property is it? The Mt. Zion monument is not unique in its mystery, one legal scholar says.
“It fits with a theme I’ve been pushing (that) these monuments have receded so far into the background that no one even knows what they’re for,” said Al Brophy, the Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law at the UNC School of Law, who has studied and written extensively about the ownership of historical monuments.
“Given that, it’s hard to say that Confederate monuments continue to reinforce white supremacy. Though I understand that for some people who know what they are, they’re a bitter pill to swallow.”
If no subsequent trustees of the monument association were appointed by the original group, Brophy explained, then the organization no longer exists, which also means it can’t own property. It’s possible – but unlikely – that descendants of the original trustees could claim title or attempt to re-establish the association and claim ownership, he said.
Brophy added that because the church has cut the grass and maintained the monument tract for decades, it has a “strong claim” to the property through a legal doctrine known as adverse possession.
“The church has control of this, absent someone coming forward to claim it,” he said.
Other than reconstituting the monument association, or the church taking control of the property, the other option, Brophy said, would be declaring the tract as abandoned, in which case the state could assume ownership. He thinks that’s a likely scenario now, given the potential sensitivity of the ownership issue.
Aside from questions of who owns the monument, Dye said she wants to be clear about what her congregation and denomination can control: their position on race relations and civil rights. She noted that the founder of the United Methodist Church, John Wesley, was a staunch abolitionist.
“Our denomination has consistently deplored and repudiated the premises of white supremacy,” said Dye, whose first assignment as a pastor was in a predominantly black church in Mississippi, which she said was the first such cross-racial pastoral appointment in a United Methodist Church in that state. “Hatred is the opposite of the teaching of Christian faith, and racism in any manifestation is not consistent with the values of the United Methodist Church.”
A blue tarp remained wrapped around the base of the monument late Tuesday, and it was unclear when – or how – that would change.
“The church is not in the loop of what is going to be done or who is making the decisions,” Dye said. “As far as I know, that is being worked out with the town.”
But Cornelius Town Manager Anthony Roberts insisted that was not the case. “The town is not involved in the cleanup,” Roberts said.
John Deem is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.