By Paige Masten and Molly Weisner
The future of the Confederate monument in downtown Pittsboro remains uncertain following months of protests, lawsuits and a temporary restraining order.
But it has it also affected those who live and work in the area.
Since the Chatham County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the monument’s removal in August, the statue, which has sat outside the Chatham County Historic Courthouse since 1907, has been the subject of heated debate.
Many have gathered downtown to protest both for and against the statue’s removal. Social media has been a catalyst for these protests, with groups organizing via Facebook and Twitter. Some pro-Confederate groups have even posted clips of their demonstrations on TikTok.
News travels fast online — so some participants are outsiders who travel to Pittsboro on the weekends to protest. At the end of the day, however, they return to their homes outside the county and state.
For the town’s roughly 4,000 residents, though, Pittsboro is home. It’s where they do their shopping, raise their families and go to work. But residents say there’s an atmosphere of fear and tension in Pittsboro now, and they’re feeling the effects in their daily lives.
‘We want our town back’
One resident, who wished to remain anonymous, has lived in the town for nearly four years. Like many, she’s relatively new to the area compared to those who have sat on the land for generations. That’s part of what’s fueling arguments on both sides.
“Some people have said, and continue to say, that if you aren’t from Chatham or have a certain number of generations here, then you don’t understand or it’s not your place to talk about it,” she said. “It’s an outsider mentality. I was born and raised in North Carolina, but I’m not from Chatham. What does that say about me, or anyone else for that matter? When is someone ‘Chatham’ enough?”
Many outsiders have also attended protests as the monument has developed vested interests across the county, state and beyond. But those in the county who were part of the decision-making process say the issue has grown too large to ignore.
One resident said she’s unsettled by the protests, which often happen on Saturdays, when people do their grocery shopping or enjoy the weekend downtown. She said people take different routes just to avoid the courthouse area.
“We just want to feel safe and enjoy our town, bring our children out for ice cream on a Saturday,” she said. “People just want to move on. We want our town back.”
Rev. Brent Levy of The Local Church in Pittsboro has lived in Pittsboro for about a year and a half.
Levy said in the church’s small group gatherings, the monument comes up often, but the sentiment shared is one of heartache due to a lack of unity. Levy said he’s noticed it’s been on residents’ minds.
“I do think there will be significant healing and mending of the frayed edges of our community,” Levy said.
Levy said substantive dialogue and bringing people together, as the church does in its Local Tables program, might help people overcome barriers between rural and urban or conservative and liberal.
Students have also been touched by the protests, especially as some have opted to participate themselves.
Last month, Confederate sympathizers repeatedly raised a Confederate flag across from Horton Middle School. Horton, once known as “Negro School,” is named in honor of the formerly enslaved poet George Moses Horton. It served as an all-black school in the days of segregation.
Horton Middle School and Pittsboro Elementary School are within minutes of downtown where the courthouse stands. Northwood High School is just three miles north.
Mac Parker, a first-year at UNC-Chapel Hill and Pittsboro resident since 2017, said even though she’s been away at school, she’s felt the impact of the monument issue.
“It was really shocking to see because the whole time I’ve lived in Pittsboro and visited family there, it’s been a quiet town that most people aren’t familiar with,” she said.
Though the protests don’t stop Parker from visiting home, she said her family has been more vigilant about going downtown, especially where protestors have occupied the streets.
“If the statue is gone, the emotional toll that it’s had on the people of color who have to witness it every time they’ve driven through town will hopefully decrease,” Parker said. “Pittsboro itself is already a very progressive place, and I think that the white supremacists will have to accept that their actions have no place here.”
‘People don’t want to come downtown’
As protests in downtown Pittsboro continue, local businesses, too, have been affected. Many have seen a noticeable decline in the number of customers who visit their stores.
George Alston, a Pittsboro resident and facilities services employee at UNC, said that he has adjusted his routine in response to the protests.
“I really don’t like to go downtown,” Alston said. “I don’t want to be near the monument. There’s just too much going on.”
Alston said that he thinks the protests are definitely hurting businesses, and will continue to have a negative impact if the monument stays.
“They should just remove the monument,” Alston said. “Chatham Park is coming, and people moving in don’t want all this stuff going on in Pittsboro. We want to grow, but we can’t grow like that, with all that mess going on.”
Alston isn’t alone. Business owners say hostility from protesters and counterprotesters alike has deterred many people from coming to downtown Pittsboro. One business owner, who declined to be named, said the monument controversy has definitely impacted business — and not in a good way.
Businesses closest to the monument seem to be affected the most. Pittsboro Roadhouse is located on West Street, just a stone’s throw from the county’s historic courthouse. Protests and local news coverage of the issue have caused sales to decline even as the holiday season approaches, said owner Greg Lewis.
“Businesses on Main Street have really been hurting,” Lewis said. “This is supposed to be a really busy time of the year, where we can pocket a little bit of money to get us through the slower months, but we haven’t been able to do that because people haven’t wanted to come into town.”
Cynthia Perry, whose son owns The Modern Life Deli & Drinks, said the presence of Confederate flags in Pittsboro has discouraged tourists, as well.
“I feel like it’s affected everybody’s business in town,” said Perry. “I’ve had people come into my restaurant from out of town who noticed the Confederate flags. They said that they thought this was going to be a nice town to come to, but they realized that the flags were saying something different.”
Mary DeMare, general manager of New Horizons Trading Company, said the general willingness of her regular customers to shop in town is lower.
“People don’t want to come downtown,” DeMare said.
The monument’s removal is delayed — for now.
The original decision made by county commissioners gave the Winnie Davis chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy until Oct. 1 to present a plan for removal. If no resolution was found, a Nov. 1 deadline was set for the monument’s removal, and the statue would have been considered public trespass.
On Oct. 28, however, a judge granted a temporary restraining order to the UDC, who filed a lawsuit against the county claiming the statue’s removal would cause “irreparable harm.”
A judge was expected to rule Friday on the future of the monument. But according to WRAL News, the court hearing has been delayed until next week. An exact date for the new hearing had not yet been determined, court officials told WRAL.