With additional reporting by Adrianne Cleven and Eric Ferkenhoff.
There was a lot of talk of history in Pittsboro Monday night.
What was true and what were lies? Who did what when? Whose history mattered?
The trouble was the two factions who spoke to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners on the fate of a Confederate statue in front of the downtown courthouse seemed to disagree on all of it.
During the public comment section, Rev. Carl E. Thompson, the black pastor Siler City’s Word of Live Christian Outreach Center, said walking past the statue felt “surreal” because it represented taking away his human rights at a place that is supposed to represent justice for all.
As Thompson spoke some in the crowd grew agitated, with one heckler even yelling at him to “shut up.”
Many supporters of the statue said it didn’t represent racism but rather the sacrifice of thousands of men who died supporting the Confederacy, and whose bodies were never returned home. Leroy Pender said in an interview after the meeting that any suggestion that the statue represented a racist history was “absurd.”
“All you hear is those monuments or those statues were put up as part of Jim Crow,” Pender said. “That’s all you hear, White supremacy, racism, which, which is totally absurd. They were put in the most prominent location in the state – or the county, rather – intentionally. But it wasn’t to put pressure on a black individual or any other type of individual.”
But opponents of the statue pointed to the fact that it was erected decades after the Civil War ended in 1907 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, which they said had close ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
Many speakers on both sides of the argument spoke of their Confederate ancestors and the glorified narrative they were taught about them.
Chip Leroy, who supported the Confederate monument, said during a break in the meeting that the comments on the other side were “horrible” because they disrespected veterans who had suffered and died. He also said he couldn’t empathize with the other side because their history was incorrect.
“It’s that they’re putting it on slavery and it wasn’t about slavery,” he said. “It was about taxation; the South would separate from the North because they were being overtaxed. The North used slavery as propaganda to fuel the war.”
But some like Emily Moose, a Chatham resident and county Planning Board member, said they consider what they were taught to be a way to justify white supremacy.
Robbin Whittington, a Chatham county resident who spoke against the removal of the statue, said she didn’t believe what was written in history books, choosing to side instead with first or second-hand testimony.
“This man had to impart the truth, not what’s in the history books because I got no faith in what’s written in the history,” Whittington said about Gene Brooks, an elderly man who spoke in favor of the statue during the meeting. “I got faith in firsthand accounts for secondhand accounts like this older gentleman had. So, what I would say to them is put the books away, go sit and talk to people and see where they’re coming from.”
While many dwelled on the past, some looked to the future.
Before comment on the fate of the statue began, a group of Latino Jordan Matthews High School students came to speak about Orgulla Latinx Pride, a youth group run by El Vinculo Hispano, which aims to empower Latinx students and give them the skills necessary to move onto college.
While speaking, several of the students discussed their undocumented immigration status and said they lived in constant fear of Immigration Customs Enforcement officers coming to deport them or their family members.
One of the student’s hands shook as she spoke in front of the hundreds of people in the crowd, some of whom wore Make America Great Again hats in support of President Trump, who has cracked down heavily on immigration. Others grumbled as the students spoke.
The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on a number of people in the crowd, who gave the students a standing ovation for their presentations.
Here was a group of students looking for a way to get ahead in a free country, while others hailed a statue that many in the crowd said stood for the enslavement, and the stripping of the very rights these kids wanted, from those who are not white.
Later in the meeting, E.P. Ackers, a statue supporter, turned to the crowd and spoke angrily about the speeches, saying it was unfair that the students got to celebrate their history but he couldn’t.
“What about my history? What about my culture?” he asked the commissioners and the crowd.
Bruce Davis said moving the statue was a good opportunity to set a good example for Chatham’s children.
Though most of the speakers were adults, several young people also addressed the commissioners.
Sarah Beck, a senior at Northwood High School, said she was ashamed of how long the monument has stood because it was erected to terrorize black people.
Nikolai Mather, a Chatham resident who now attends UNC-Charlotte, said in the meeting that keeping the statue up was “wholly, fully and on its face” a dishonest representation of history, and that keeping it up continued to remind black and brown residents of the trauma they faced – and still face.
“I’m here to make sure that the racial terrorism imposed by the statute doesn’t continue,” Mather said in an interview during a break in the meeting.
“I’m here to try and represent the voices of people who do not agree with that sort of ideology, and who are trying to find a way to come to grips with the history that we have left behind.”
In his opening remarks to the speakers, Dasher acknowledged that the statue was about more than just history.
“We all know this presentation is about more than a monument, more than just copper and granite,” he said. “This is about our history. This about changing Chatham County and a changing South and, yes, it’s about race.”
At the end of his opening remarks to the crowd, Dasher implored the audience members to be more like a class of fifth graders who sent letters to the commissioners about the statue.
“I was going to remind us all to act like grownups and ask that we set good examples for our children. But when I received letters about the monument from a class of fifth graders, I realized I had it backwards,” Dasher said.
“They spent time researching the topic, thinking about it from all sides, and then presented thoughtful, reasoned arguments about the conclusions they’d reached,” Dasher said. “They understood that others might reach different conclusions. Their opinions weren’t clouded by their political party or their news source. They don’t operate in a zero-sum game, where somebody wins only if someone else loses. So, I would ask that we all be a little less grown up tonight.”
That didn’t happen. It was a meeting filled with passion and some vitriol. It was a meeting where the sides couldn’t be further apart, a telling example of the chaotic and divided time we live in.
The commissioners will continue to trying to decide what the true history of the statue is and what it represents in the coming weeks, after hearing recommendations from staff.
The commissioners may not be able to rewrite history, as one speaker pointed out. But no matter what they choose, they can make it.
The debate hasn’t ended. Whether to remove or keep the monument, which is privately owned by the UDF but on public land, is a decision that has yet to be made.