Amid outcry, Chatham Commissioners vote to begin statue removal process

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Photo by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

After months of public and private debate, Chatham County’s Board of Commissioners voted late Monday to rid Pittsboro of its Confederate monument that stood at the foot of the historic courthouse as a point of honor for some and bitterness for others in the mostly rural, but growing county.

The board voted 4-1 to rescind the 1907 order allowing the Confederate statue to stand in front of the courthouse downtown. This gives United Daughters of the Confederacy until Oct. 1 to communicate to the Board their plans for the statue. 

Otherwise it will be considered a public trespass on government property on Nov. 1 and removed. 

The motion to rescind the order was introduced by Commissioner Jim Crawford, and it was seconded by Commissioner Karen Howard. Commissioner Andy Wilkie was the lone vote against removing the monument.

The statue, which has been a point of debate and hostility in the county for months, follows the toppling or removal of Confederate monuments in other areas of the state – including at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – and elsewhere in the country, and the reactions reflect the deep division politically in the country now.

Video by Ari Sen and Charlotte Ririe

As Crawford spoke, he was shouted at by supporters of the statue, who called him and the others on the board “traitors to the county.”

Commissioner Diana Hales spoke first in about the statue, describing the history of the Civil War and Jim Crow before saying the statue was incompatible with the current board’s values.

Board chair Mike Dasher said that, although the town passed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UDC in June, the chapter was unwilling to work with the board on a solution. The MOU was meant to start a conversation about the future of the statue between the board and UDC’s Winnie Davis chapter.

The commissioners did not preclude further talks with the UDC in the future, however. 

Howard stressed to those in the audience, split between supporters and opponents of the monument to the Confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War, that the statue would not be destroyed if removed, but rather it would be moved to a different location. Exactly where is unclear.

The roughly 240-seat courtroom was packed, with some people having to stand along the walls to catch the proceedings. When polled, roughly half of the room raised their hands in support of removing the statue, while the other half raised their hands in favor of it staying put.

Twenty-nine people signed-up to give public comment, though a few failed to appear when their names were called. Most, but not all, of the public comment featured people speaking in favor of keeping the statue in its present location. 

Talk of the statue didn’t begin for more than an hour and a half, with the board first discussing several zoning issues. Some in attendance began to grow impatient as the meeting dragged on, occasionally groaning during staff presentations. 

Most of the public comments echoed those heard in previous sessions on the statue, with several of the same speakers coming to address the board.

Many, like Jim Ward, who said he owned property in Chatham, insisted the statue honored the sacrifice of their Confederate ancestry and denied accusations that the statue was racist. 

He later went on to blame social justice warriors for the controversy over the statue, saying they were trying to have a competition with Orange and Durham counties to see who could be “the most woke.” 

John Shirley, who said he was a Vietnam veteran, compared the statue to Vietnam war memorials and claimed the people opposing it were “guests” who shouldn’t complain.

“I think what some of our guests down here in the South don’t realize is the South is not geography; the South goes way beyond that,” Shirley said. “We love our guests in the South, but we think it’s time for them to assimilate and not try to fight things.”

Those who called for the statue’s removal, like Emily Moose, said the town had a moral imperative to remove it because the monument represented the subjugation of black people under slavery and Jim Crow.

Linda Cotton, who also favored the statue’s removal, told the commissioners that when she first moved to Chatham a few months ago, the statue frightened her.

“When I first moved here and drove to downtown Pittsboro, obviously I noticed it and, honestly, it scared me,” Cotton said, greeted by laughs and groans from statue supporters. “It worried me about what kind of community I’d moved to.” 

Shortly after the vote, some of the crowd streamed out of the courthouse, waving Confederate and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. 

Rusty Alphin, a statue supporter, called the commissioners “traitors,” but declined to comment further. When approached by reporters, several other statue supporters declined comment after the decision. 

A few minutes later, Alphin appeared to get into an altercation with another man before law enforcement officers stepped in to separate them. Chatham County Sheriff’s deputies told the Chatham News + Record that no arrests were made.

With additional reporting by Charlotte Ririe. 

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