Vote to remove Confederate monument brings relief, frustration to Chatham

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Photo of the debated monument in front of the historic courthouse. By Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

But is it just emblematic of the larger divide nationally?

By Molly Weisner and Paige Masten

The Confederate monument on the steps of the Pittsboro courthouse is coming down. But the questions that have been suspended in midair are more complicated ones: when, and why?

In late September, Mike Dasher, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, sent a letter to Barbara Pugh, president of the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, saying the county would consider a request for extended time to present a plan for removal.

Tuesday was the deadline for the UDC to submit a plan for relocation, but the day came and went with no plan submitted. At this point, the monument’s placement on the courthouse steps will be considered public trespass as of Nov. 1. 

The UDC did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication. 

With the process expected to be nearing a close by the end of the year, groups in the community – and outsiders who have met in Pittsboro during rallies – are feeling the acceleration. Just this week, pro-Confederate sympathizers raising a flag across from Horton Middle School, which archival maps show was once called “Negro School” before being renamed Pittsboro Colored School. It was then dedicated to the first published freed slave in the South, George Moses Horton.

Photo of a Confederate flag put up across from Horton Middle School, by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

“It has been a hard couple of weeks,” Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry said. 

A community divided

The issue is, at its core, complicated. Local officials are under pressure from both sides in what often feels like a no-win situation. 

“If the statue was only about the veterans, the choice to keep it would be simple,” said Chatham County commissioner Jim Crawford, who cast one of the votes in favor of the monument’s removal in a 4-1 decision. “If the statue was just about the cause of the war, slavery and its complex legacy, then the choice to get rid of it would be easy. The problem is that it is both.” 

For some, the vote for removal bodes an overdue directive by the Chatham County Commissioners. For others, it threatens a personal history. 

Lance Spivey, co-founder of Heirs to the Confederacy, said he was heartbroken when commissioners ordered the statue’s removal back in August. 

“Our history is being purposefully erased, destroyed because of somebody’s feelings,” Spivey said. “To destroy any memorial to history is to undermine our very freedom, the cost of which those memorials are there to remind us of.” 

Lindsay Ayling, a UNC graduate student and activist, said she was happy to hear that another town in North Carolina is getting rid of a monument to white supremacy. Confederate statues in Durham and Chapel Hill were toppled by protesters in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

“After what happened with Silent Sam at UNC, it’s good to see that towns are actually taking their own initiative instead of leaving it to students or private citizens to do that work for them,” Ayling said. 

One local group, Chatham Takes Action, has been active in standing up to Confederate demonstrators in Pittsboro. 

David Freeman, who participates with the group, said that one of his top concerns was the potential for violence to escalate into doing real harm, like what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. 

“I am hoping that we will be able to avoid something even half as bad as the Unite the Right rally,” Freeman said. “I am optimistic, but the best thing that can happen right now is to rip that Band-Aid off.”

More than just a local issue

One claim made by both sides is that the debate is exacerbated by outsiders. But who exactly those “outsiders” are is a point of contention, too.

Image via Twitter

Some claim the Confederate perspective is outdated and no longer welcome, while others have said that people who haven’t lived in the county shouldn’t get a say – even though people from both sides of the issue traveled to Pittsboro from outside the county and state to rally, for and against, the monument.

The county has experienced steady growth over the last decade, and from 2000 to 2010 alone, the population grew by almost 30 percent. The county is also relatively spread out between rural communities and established towns or cities.

Growth in the county has brought in new residents and has contributed to expanding minorities communities, too. Some residents said that politics clash between Chatham’s older and newer groups.

Freeman, who grew up in the South, mentioned the marginalized groups who have not been consulted on this issue – and whose voices have been eclipsed by the monument’s prominent place in the county. 

“It represents a point in time of Jim Crow, of institutionalized racism,” Freeman said. 

“I think there’s still just remnants of old ways of doing things that have a structural, racialized component that needs to be evaluated,” Terry said. 

Katy Henderson, who works in Pittsboro, said her first reaction to the removal vote was one of surprise. But she said the Confederate statue phenomenon was one with which she was unfamiliar prior to moving to the state. 

“It’s such a bitter history,” Henderson said. “I understand the perspective of the people who’ve lived in the county for generations and maybe now are feeling ignored in favor of newcomers whose interests are different from their own. That doesn’t mean that we need to perpetuate and spread symbols of white supremacy across the county.”

Archival map of Pittsboro showing the location of Horton Middle School, once known as “The Negro School”. Photo by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

And to say that Chatham County sits on only one bank of the issue or another is also an overstatement. The environment is charged, and emotions are running high on an issue that’s both a political and social concern. 

Curtis Sobie, a candidate running for North Carolina’s District 4, which borders Chatham County, and former resident of Pittsboro, said he remembers driving through the town center every day and seeing the monument. When the vote passed for its removal, Sobie said he was excited. 

“It’s a Confederate monument,” Sobie said. “They were specifically placed in very visible areas outside of buildings belonging to government institutions to intimidate people, most specifically African Americans and anyone else who disagreed with Confederate ideology.”

Ayling said that in recent weeks, a number of pro-Confederate groups have come to Pittsboro to advocate against the statue’s removal.

“What was really alarming about the demonstrations was a number of people from the same alt-right group that marched under swastikas in Charlottesville at Unite the Right were present at both of the rallies, defending the Pittsboro statue,” Ayling said. 

According to Ayling, members of groups such as the Hiwaymen, League of the South and Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County have attended the demonstrations. Ayling said these groups attempt to harass and intimidate communities that want to remove symbols of white supremacy. 

Sobie said that while the vote has been passed and the removal process has begun, the protests are still concerning, including last weekend when arrests were made and scuffles broke out.

But Stephanie Terry, co-founder of Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity, said the county is fortunate to have an influx of people that adds to its diversity. 

“It’s always so warm and fuzzy,” Terry said. “I would like for it to stay that way. But I definitely sense that politically and institutionally, there needs to be some serious reflection, evaluation and change on how business is done to ensure that legislation, policy and business reflects the diverse community that Chatham now is.”

Looking to the future

The statue isn’t the only thing that people disagree on — protesters and counter-protesters also feel differently on what the town should do moving forward. 

Maya Little, a UNC graduate student known for their role as an anti-Silent Sam activist, said the decision made by the commission is a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done. 

“The next step is not simply removing things that are blatantly offensive and violent to others,” Little said, “but establishing a community of mutual aid and humanity in Chatham.” 

Ayling said that given the level of unrest in the town recently, commissioners should remove the statue as soon as possible.

“As long as it’s up there, the white supremacists will think there’s hope that they can keep that statue up,” Ayling said. “When it comes down, that will decrease their morale, and they will eventually stop coming back.”

On the other hand, however, Spivey said commissioners should retract their order to remove the statue altogether.

“I would like to see the memorial left where it is,” he said, “because history forgotten shall be repeated.”

The argument of historical pertinent becomes muddled, too, with the idea that Confederate monuments — as an entire political saga — are also issues of free speech under the First Amendment. 

Legal scholars have proffered the idea that when a monument is erected, it’s not just a group that’s speaking, it’s also the local government. That raises the question of whether a town’s residents are compulsory in participating in that speech. 

Ultimately, though, one thing seems clear: the statue’s removal will not be an easy one. 

The divisiveness over white nationalism is also hardly an issue confined to North Carolina. Just this week, Newsweek reported an incident where a Georgia teacher was put on leave for sharing an incendiary message about the Confederate flag in a classroom: “A sticker you put on the back of your pickup truck to announce that you intend to marry your sister. Think of it like a white trash ‘Save the Date’ card.” 

With the country severely divided on racial and political lines, some blame the Trump administration, while others lay blame liberals’ inability to cooperate.

“At the end of the day, we all have to live with each other,” Terry said. “We’re all part of this community. No one’s going anywhere, and so really, we all matter. We should be able to talk and figure out the values that we share.” 

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