MORGANTON — It was already a source of contention between those who see it as part of their heritage and those who believe it’s a hateful relic of the past whose time has come to be moved from the Old Burke County Courthouse Square in Morganton.
And since renovations to the square have continued, the Confederate soldier statue is now more visible to residents and visitors. Trees that once caused the statue to appear less stark had to be removed.
In late June, the statue was the site of flared tensions as Black Lives Matters protesters and statue supporters clashed.
Three Morganton residents who spoke during the Burke County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday think the time has come for the statue to be moved from the public square, one that is supported with taxpayer money.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Eugene Willard told commissioners he has been a resident of Burke County for 41 years and has always been proud of the county and was eager to show it off to visitors. But now, he said, he is less of a cheerleader of the county than he once was because of the statue. He said the monument to the lost cause of the Confederacy was erected 50 years after the Civil War as a way to demean and intimidate African Americans as part of the Jim Crow South. He read a recent resolution passed by the governing board of the North Carolina Council of Churches that called such markers at courthouses and government buildings inherently incompatible with the constitutional assurance of justice and equality of all.
Willard asked commissioners to begin the process to have the monument moved to a cemetery or museum, where he believes it should have been all along.
Caroline Avery spoke at the commissioners’ January regular meeting, as well as the Tuesday meeting, about the statue and her belief that it’s time to find a new location for it.
Avery said the statue was not supported by the people in the county 100 years ago because it was not a priority of the community, nor is it a priority of the community now.
“Why should we keep this monument at a place we call a welcoming symbol of our community,” Avery said. “A place to gather for our citizens and visitors.”
She said the monument does not welcome anyone and it doesn’t invite gatherings for citizens or visitors.
Avery challenged them to walk by the monument and imagine their skin is black. She said it looms over the square, is not inviting and welcoming, it threatens, intimidates and incites fear.
Avery said the community wants to address the location of the statue in a meaningful way and asked the board members to be leaders in starting an open and inclusive dialog on the matter.
Pastor George Logan, who didn’t attend the meeting, had Avery read his comments about the statue to the board.
He appealed to the board to remove the statue.
Logan said he’s heard heritage as a reason for keeping it on the square.
“Heritage implies some level of ownership. This is not necessarily a bad thing,” Logan said. “The problem, however, with the argument of heritage is that it shows a limited scope of whose heritage it is.”
He said he is of mixed-race heritage, as are many black people in the South. His great-great-grandfather was a white man who fought for the Confederacy, was a landowner and businessman and the father of at least 12 mixed-race children, Logan said.
“So I ask, whose heritage are we talking about here. We all have some ownership in this county and community,” Logan said. “However, the sentiments of some appear to be much more important than that of others. Some are seen while others live in obscurity.
“I feel that the bigger question to be answered is: Do you see us? Because if you did, you would understand why it saddens us to see a monument with a Confederate soldier standing in the middle of our town square that represents the oppression of a people and the inhuman atrocities that took place to keep them enslaved.”
Logan said the construction going on at the Old Courthouse Square is a chance to deconstruct white supremacy and create a new paradigm of love and inclusion.
It is typical for commissioners not to respond to comments made during the public comments portion of the board’s meetings. And that was true after the comments made on Tuesday from Willard, Avery and Logan.
The News Herald contacted Jeff Brittain, chairman of the board of commissioners, last week to ask whether the board will consider moving the statue, which belongs to the county. The county leases the Old Courthouse property to the city.
Brittain said commissioners have listened and have heard people’s opinions about the statue.
“I fully respect those opinions,” Brittain said. “People say we haven’t listened or heard but (we have) and tried to discern what is best for our community.”
Brittain said opinions from people in the county about the statue are varied. He said as an elected commissioner, it’s his job, and that of other commissioners, to ascertain how the bulk of the community feels about an issue.
Given that, his read of the statue controversy is many in the community view it as a piece of history, and don’t align with it as a symbol of slavery or hate. He likened many people’s attitude about the statue as sentimental. He said he thinks the majority of people see it the same as they would a piece of art or something historic.
The feelings the statue evokes for each individual is what lies in their heart, Brittain said.
The News Herald contacted Claude Sitton, executive director and former chairman of the board of the History Museum of Burke County, last week to ask whether the museum would have room or interest in housing the statue.
Sitton said he has heard from numerous people since the protest at the statue in June about the possibility of placing it at the museum.
But Sitton said the museum is not going to take it.
“We have discussed it but it’s just not something we want to take on,” Sitton said.
He said the museum doesn’t have a place inside for something that big and they don’t want to offend any African Americans with it.
Sitton said the board made a decision years ago to integrate the museum. He said the museum not only honors African Americans in February during Black History Month but year-round, including an exhibit showing when schools were integrated in 1965 in the county.
And while the museum does have items from the Confederacy, having the statue there is just not something they want to do.
“Why should we take it there and it be the same embarrassment to African Americans up there as it is where it’s located now?” Sitton said. “Who’s going to move it and who’s going to keep it up?”
Moving the statue to a cemetery also has been suggested.
The News Herald contacted Sally Sandy, Morganton city manager, about whether the statue could be located at city-owned Forest Hill Cemetery.
Sandy said the city hasn’t looked for a spot like that but she is sure the city council would be willing to work with the county or some other group associated with the statue to try to find an appropriate spot there, (the cemetery), if there was a desire.
This is not the first time the issue has been brought up. Sandy said the statue and its potential movement has been discussed over the years more than one time in the community.
The clash at the statue over the summer led city officials to call public meetings to discuss human relations, racial tension and law enforcement policies in Morganton. Sandy said the city has also had several conversations considering compromises and getting all sides of the issue.
Sandy said on Friday a suggestion the city council talked about and made to the county was that a compromise maybe could be worked out. The suggested compromise was to leave the base, which holds the names of Civil War soldiers from Burke, on the courthouse square and the soldier statue could be moved somewhere else, she said. That was their suggestion to at least begin some type of conversation or dialog about it, Sandy said.