With additional reporting by Ari Sen.
For something that hasn’t uttered a word – ever – the Confederate monument outside Pittsboro’s historic courthouse has caused quite a stir lately.
The debate over the Confederate monument has tested loyalties and revealed deep divides in the community over the past few months. Some say it should be removed, citing issues of racial equality. Others say the statue’s removal would be akin to erasing history.
Monday night’s Chatham County Board of Commissioners meeting served as another manifestation of that unrest. Though the meeting addressed other issues, – a spring agriculture festival, a recommended property tax increase, and a county erosion control award – over 40 community members publicly expressed whether they thought the monument deserved a space in the center of town.
Those comments took up over two and a half hours of the meeting. There were mentions of inclusion, secession, treason, conflicting narratives, white privilege, taxpayer burden, memory and honor. And outside the courthouse, a group of pro-statue demonstrators held signs and vowed to protect the monument.
Historian Gene Brooks began the public comment section of Monday night’s meeting by reviewing Chatham County’s history and contextualizing the statue. At the last meeting, the Board stopped Brooks’ comments at the typical three-minute cutoff. Commissioner Chair Mike Dasher insinuated that others had wanted to hear more from Brooks, hence his lengthy allotment Monday night.
Brooks discussed the history of Chatham County stretching back to colonial times, and gave an overview of the community’s agricultural roots, culture and educational system. Then, he delved into Civil War history: the young soldiers who fought in the war, Chatham County’s contribution to North Carolina’s sizeable 26th regiment, and over 7 million people who died in the conflict.
“We don’t need to erase history in America … we need to learn from it,” said Brooks, though it was not explicitly clear whether he wished to see the statue stay or go. He received a standing ovation from a majority of the crowd.
Other public comments followed, mostly citing two main arguments: that the statue should stay in its place to commemorate an at-times messy history, and that it should be removed because it represented racial oppression.
Kevin Stone, a business owner from Lee County, referred to the monument as a “literal gravestone” to honor soldiers. Community member Robin Whittington called the statue a “beloved memorial.”
On the other side, Emily Moose said the statue, which is owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was “intentionally divisive” from its inception.
A common thread wove through the multitude of comments: statements of division amid calls for unity. One public comment even began with the phrase, “I’m not an outsider.” Ronnie Lambert addressed the board members directly, saying that the monument did not mean anything personal to them.
“I mean no disrespect,” he said to the board, “but none of you grew up in North Carolina.”
At a particularly heated point during the meeting when a commenter was audibly booed, Dasher called for “civil discourse.” Community member Rosalyn Darling said that the county needs to focus on things it can agree on.
“This is a forward-looking county,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all come together…?”
Several mentioned possible solutions to the issue, such as explanatory signage to explain the monument’s complex legacy or an additional statue near the existing monument.
And who would a theoretical new statue honor?
Suggestions ranged from monuments depicting enslaved or lynched individuals, Chatham residents who fought against the confederacy, union troops, women, and black poet George Moses Horton, (Horton Middle school is named after him).
But after the discussion, there was still no clear solution.
Chatham County resident Scott Gilmore echoed the disappointed, frustrated sentiment that seemed to permeate the packed meeting.
“I didn’t come back to Chatham County,” he said, “to find almost a civil war in my own backyard.”