North Carolina

Chatham’s Confederate statue in Pittsboro to come down, board decides at rowdy meeting

Rumored protest draws monument supporters to Pittsboro Confederate statue

In response to a rumored protest at the courthouse before before a March 2019 Chatham County Commission meeting, sheriff's deputies placed barriers around the “Our Confederate Heroes” statue as about 30 monument supporters gathered.
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In response to a rumored protest at the courthouse before before a March 2019 Chatham County Commission meeting, sheriff's deputies placed barriers around the “Our Confederate Heroes” statue as about 30 monument supporters gathered.

Chatham County’s Confederate monument will come down by November — one way or the other — commissioners decided Monday night.

After a raucous, roughly 80-minute meeting punctuated by shouts of support and jeers of opposition from both sides, the Chatham commissioners voted 4-1 to ask the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to bring a plan for the statue’s removal to the county by Oct. 1. Commissioner Andy Wilkie cast the lone vote against the motion.

If the UDC does not offer a solution, the county will declare it public trespass by Nov. 1, making it eligible for removal, the board said.

“The monument represents government speech that at one time was consistent with the ruling values of the county. Now its message is inconsistent with the ruling values of the county,” said Commissioner Jim Crawford, who moved to seek the statue’s removal.

Supporters of the Confederate monument shouted “You’re a traitor!” and “Traitors to Chatham County!” as the board members spoke. Outside, some gathered in front of the statue and across the street. A few waved Confederate and other flags in protest. Scuffles broke out in the crowd as words were exchanged.

A few dozen Pittsboro police officers and Chatham County deputies were in the courthouse and in the area surrounding it to keep the peace. They had cordoned off the north side of the courthouse and the monument with metal barriers before the meeting.

The vote came on the eve of a UNC-Chapel Hill rally celebrating the Aug. 20, 2018, toppling of the Silent Sam Confederate statue on campus. The “Silent Sam is Down: Anniversary Party!” is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street.

Confederate rally 8-20-2019.jpg
Confederate statue supporters rallied Monday in front of the Historic Chatham County Courthouse following a county commissioners decision to give the United Daughters of the Confederacy until Oct. 1 to come up with a plan for moving the monument. Tammy Grubb tgrubb@heraldsun.com

Chatham’s Confederate statue has stood at the historic courthouse in Pittsboro since the county let the UDC put it there in 1907.

No one has suggested destroying the monument, Commissioner Karen Howard said, but it should be moved to a cemetery, a memorial garden or another appropriate location. The community dialogue should continue, she said, and could be led by a reconciliation panel.

“American history is not clean and simple. It’s not black and white,” Howard said. “It is a convoluted history that involves many issues that were not the issues of the average person on the ground, and certainly, the voices of black people have not been heard in the telling of these stories.”

Statue supporter and Vietnam War veteran John Shirley agreed racism is wrong, but said he thinks the statue was erected to honor the 1,900 Chatham County soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War.

“I can tell you when monuments were erected to the veterans of Vietnam, I felt very good about it,” Shirley said. He suggested non-Southerners find a way “to assimilate and embrace the South and not try to fight against it.”

The community has talked for months about whether to leave the statue, move it or give it another purpose. The statue is privately owned, although it sits on public ground.

The state’s 2015 law, which limits the removal and alteration of monuments on public grounds, does not apply to privately owned monuments. County officials said it is the UDC’s responsibility to do something with the statue.

The group Chatham For All also asked the commissioners in April to return the monument to the UDC. A group of supporters asked in May for the county to preserve the statue in its current location.

Barbara Pugh, president of the Winnie Davis Chapter, signed an agreement in July to work with Commissioners Chair Mike Dasher “in good faith” on a mutually acceptable solution. One option was making the statue a memorial to all veterans.

But Pugh then told Dasher the UDC wasn’t going to talk about it.

In a statement released Aug. 5 to the Chatham News & Record, Pugh said the statue belongs to the county, which would make it a public monument.

“It is inappropriate that we re-imagine the statue in any way” other than as a gift to the county, Pugh said in the statement, which was addressed to the commissioners. The UDC is willing to seek a legal opinion from a judge, she said.

Pugh declined to comment after Monday’s vote.

Over 1,000 people have signed a petition supporting the statue’s removal, said Emily Moose, with Chatham for All. She is a native North Carolinian and also had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, Moose said, but none of that should matter.

A public monument codifying “one race’s superiority over another is antithetical to the values that America claims to uphold,” she said.

Efraim Ramirez, who was among roughly two dozen people who spoke Monday, offered an alternative: Replace the soldier with a statue of enslaved poet George Moses Horton.

Horton was born a slave in Chatham County but taught himself to read and made extra money writing poems for UNC students and others in a lifelong attempt to buy his freedom. He instead bought his time from his master and used it to write and publish his poems.

Dorasue Christian suggested adding more statues at the courthouse. Growing up in Chatham County, Christian said, she “was taught to show honor and respect for veterans (and) not to speak ill of the dead.” The statue could teach “future generations to observe, ask questions, learn and remember,” she said.

“The statue should not be hidden from view, but left front and center as a constant reminder of our past, our lost young men and our veterans,” Christian said.

Some of the stories shared Monday were “very personal” family histories that are worth telling, Commissioner Diana Hale said. But that’s not the whole story of the Confederate statue, she said.

“It’s not exclusively homage to soldiers who died but a constant reminder of the brutality, second-class status and political power that the white population had and can exercise over its citizen neighbors with dark skin,” Hale said.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.
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