20 August 2017

The Monument 4: Removal

[Part 4 of a 4-part series]

Ten years ago I wrote a series for this blog, telling the story of the creation and dedication of the Chatham County Confederate Memorial, and of the aftermath, when the statue was defaced. Today I am updating this series, with two statements stripped of ambiguity or equivocation:

  • The Chatham County Confederate Memorial symbolizes the regime of racial apartheid that white supremacists brought to the South in the era of Jim Crow.
  • The memorial should be removed from its present place of veneration in the town of Pittsboro's public space.
I happened upon the story of the monument while doing research in the Chatham Record in July of 2007. It seemed an important one to tell, but with the memorial's centennial a few weeks away, there was no time for me to pitch the story to a publication and have it run to coincide with the anniversary. I created the Chatham Rabbit blog as a venue for that particular piece, which I posted soon after the centennial. After a few months, I left off and stopped updating the blog.

In the last week, the questions posed by monuments to the Confederacy have flared once again in the national discourse, as a response to violent displays of hatred by white nationalists. This time, the actions occurred in Charlottesville, but the same questions arose from the racially motivated murder of blacks in Charleston two years ago. There is an irredeemable bond between the monuments and the ongoing history of white supremacy in the United States. The questions will persist until we have reconciliation on race in America, and reconciliation is a long road that stretches before us.

What the memorial stands for

The Confederate monuments that went up in the early and mid-Twentieth Century are not memorials to defeat, but commemorations of a victory. The figures celebrate the final victory, in the states of the southern US, of the regime of racial apartheid that became known as Jim Crow.

In my piece ten years ago, I referred to the intentions of those who sought to place the monument in the space as "the movement to memorialize the Confederacy." I didn't take the statements of the monument's supporters at face value then; ten years of reflection on the state of race in America, and our lack of progress in reconciling with the atrocities of the past, have only deepened my skepticism. 

Today, I believe, there is much more widespread recognition of the true nature of these symbols. Many friends on social media during the past week have circulated a piece that historian Tim Tyson wrote for the News & Observer after the Charleston shooting two years ago, "Commemorating North Carolina’s anti-Confederate heritage, too." In it, Tyson (whose account of the relocation of the Confederate memorial in Oxford figured in my Part 3 ten years ago) wrote:
[T]hey built the monuments after the white supremacy campaigns had seized power by force and taken the vote from black North Carolinians. The monuments reflected that moment of white supremacist ascendency as much as they did the Confederate legacy.
Also following the Charleston murders, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a visualization of a timeline showing the placement of the Confederate monuments. It clearly shows spikes in the number of monument placements during the era of Jim Crow, and during the Civil Rights movement.

While there will always be a division of opinion on this point, I believe that the public debate is settled. The main question that follows is how we choose to act on this understanding.

What should happen next

The Chatham Confederate monument should be removed from a place of veneration in public space. If it is removed to a public space, it should be placed in a context that recognizes the ongoing history of white supremacy that the Confederacy, and its later memorialization in the Jim Crow era, represent.

The Board of Commissioners of the Town of Pittsboro should conduct a discussion on the proper course for removing the memorial. Just as the county's Board of Commissioners approved the placement of the monument in 1907, the town's board should register a decision to remove it. If necessary, funds should be raised from private citizens for its removal, just as was done for its creation 110 years ago.

Ten years ago, I also took a position on the removal of the monument:
[T]he monument no longer belongs at the center of civic affairs in the county. I think it should be moved, to a dignified memorial park where it can reside with memorials of a wide variety of origins. (Part 3)
I am less concerned now with the relocation of the monument to a "dignified memorial park," though I believe the county's historical museum - which resides in the courthouse building in the same circle - would, if feasible, be an appropriate place for it.

As of this writing, the news tells us that former mayor Randy Voller "appealed Monday [August 14] to the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners for a conversation about the monument’s future." When the minutes from the August 14 are posted, I will link to them here. See the News & Observer of August 18, "Rumors bring group to aid of Pittsboro’s Confederate monument."

If the town moves to relocate the monument, it will do so in contravention of a bill that the NC state legislature passed two years ago, in a reactionary response to the discourse about monuments that accompanied the murders in Charleston. The General Assembly, in the time since Republicans took over in 2010, has proven itself hostile to the history of progressive change and leadership that is part of North Carolina's story. The Republican majority in NC currently engages in extreme practices limiting access to the ballot, providing a sad continuation of the regime of Jim Crow. Though federal courts have ordered the state to redraw its maps and hold special elections, the Republicans have refused to move forward in good faith. The Republican majority is not legitimate, and contravening its law forcing municipalities to maintain monuments should be considered an act of civil disobedience.

The name of the township in which Pittsboro lies is Center. The traffic circle in which the statue stands is the center of town, an important symbolic crossroads that lies near the geographical center of the NC. The statue stands in the center of public space in the town and the county. That shared, central space should represent our values, and speak of who we are and who we aspire to be. The people who lived here 110 years ago took this truth to heart, and acted on it by placing a memorial there to a lost cause that sought to preserve slavery, while themselves engaging in the suppression of equal representation for those whom the system of slavery and apartheid had wronged.

As long as the Confederate monument stands there in a position of veneration, the public space of Pittsboro cannot reflect the values to which we aspire. There's no loss to history if we choose to alter that space to do so. 

Will Sexton 
a.k.a. "Chatham Rabbit," ca. 2007
@willsexton
Pittsboro, North Carolina