RALEIGH — The N.C. Historical Commission said it is hamstrung by state law and a legislature that won’t allow controversial Confederate monuments on the old Capitol grounds in Raleigh to be moved.
But on Wednesday, Aug. 22, the commission adopted three resolutions to protect the objects of remembrance in the wake of vandalism to other Civil War statues, while seeking to add more inclusive historical tributes. Legislative leaders said they were ready and willing to implement the recommendations.
Commission members reflected on the sharp edges of a decades-long, intractable debate. Strident opponents of Confederate monuments view them as a detestable anachronism honoring a dark period of slavery, secession, and war. Ardent supporters believe they reflect valor, heritage, family history, and fallen ancestors.
The meeting was held amid heavy police presence throughout the state government complex. Silent Sam, UNC-Chapel Hill’s monument to student soldiers who fell in the Civil War, was toppled by vandals two days earlier. One year ago, a Confederate soldier monument at the old Durham County Courthouse was torn down.
One woman protester briefly disrupted an earlier meeting of the Confederate Monuments Study Committee, which voted to recommend the resolutions to the full commission. She was quickly detained and removed.
At issue are three Confederate monuments — one to the Confederate Dead of North Carolina, another to the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy, and a third to Henry Lawson Wyatt, a North Carolina soldier and the first Confederate casualty of the war.
Gov. Roy Cooper petitioned the commission to remove them from the State Capitol and display them instead at the Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County. That is the site of the state’s largest Civil War battle. The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 22 in 2015 barring removal, relocation, or alteration of monuments, memorials, and works of art owned by the state without approval of the commission. It limited removal to a few specific circumstances.
The commission passed the resolutions with little discussion. Each calls for varying degrees of action. Most of the debate took place in the study committee.
One resolution simply states the commission considers the three monuments an overrepresentation and over-memorialization of a difficult era in North Carolina history. It passed unanimously.
Another said the commission is unable to recommend removal because of the legislative prohibition. It states a preference for “encouraging the continuing interpretation of history — including the African American experience — rather than the denial of history.” It passed 9-2.
The third resolution passed 10-1. It called for a “more accurate explanation of the Civil War and its aftermath in North Carolina, additional signage with historical facts and context should be added adjacent to the three monuments to ensure that the significant contributions of African Americans are presented along with the struggles they endured in North Carolina as they fought for civil rights and social justice.”
A second provision says the monuments should acknowledge slavery caused the Civil War. Another provision directs the N.C. Department of Natural & Cultural Resources to raise funds to erect additional monuments on Capitol Square to memorialize African Americans’ accomplishments and contributions. The resolution urges the governor and General Assembly to work together to add those monuments without delay.
“It is time for North Carolina to realize that we can document and learn from our history without idolizing painful symbols,” Cooper said in a written statement.
“The General Assembly needs to change its 2015 law so our state and its people have a better path to remove or relocate these monuments safely,” Cooper said.
“The actions that toppled Silent Sam bear witness to the strong feelings many North Carolinians have about Confederate monuments. I don’t agree with or condone the way that monument came down, but protesters concluded that their leaders would not — could not — act on the frustration and pain it caused,” Cooper said.
“I acknowledge, too, those who believe these monuments should stay as they are because they symbolize our history,” Cooper said. “But they are just one part of our history.”
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, also issued statements after the meeting.
“I appreciate that this committee followed the law and listened to the overwhelming majority of public comments from North Carolinians saying monuments on the state Capitol Grounds are part of our state’s history and should remain where they are,” Berger said. “I also agree with the committee that there’s more of the story that should be told, and that men and women shamefully held in bondage for generations helped build our state, and that deserves a monument.”
“Today’s Historical Commission meeting demonstrated that civil discourse among the public can prevail over the criminal actions of a violent mob and that North Carolina law regarding the removal of statues — passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly — provides for collaborative solutions to use our state’s history to unite, rather than divide, our citizens,” Moore said.
During the study committee meeting, member Valerie Johnson, chairwoman of the N.C. African American Heritage, said the keeping the monuments on public grounds promotes the continuing ideology of white supremacy. Relocating them “is not erasure but an act of revelation,” she said. “It is reimagining citizenship in a more truthful and inclusive way.”
“We cannot alter or change history, or right past wrongs by attempting to replace it,” or by toppling its monuments, said commission member Chris Fonvielle. History should be used to teach and inspire, not to wage cultural warfare against one another, he said. “We may have arrived in America on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”