North Carolina has struggled with how to interpret its Confederate past for decades. But for the past three years, Confederate monuments have been a particular flashpoint across the state.
Violent protests around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, touched off a renewed discussion on what to do with them. Should they be moved? Added to? Explained?
Meanwhile, protestors have often taken matters into their own hands and defaced or destroyed these monuments.
Gov. Roy Cooper has pushed to move Confederate monuments off of public property and into museums.
But on Wednesday, the N.C. Historical Commission cited a state law passed in 2015 in declining to approve Gov. Cooper’s request.
That means the Confederate monuments will not be moved from the State Capitol grounds. It also means that other public monuments across North Carolina will stay put.
“We should study history to remind us, to teach us, guide us and inspire us to be better persons and better citizens,” said commission member Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., a professional historian. “We must not, however, use it to wage cultural warfare against one another.”
Here’s everything you need to know about Confederate monuments in North Carolina.
Just want to know about the big decision Wednesday by the N.C. Historical Commission? Jump right there.
How many Confederate monuments does North Carolina have?
Historians have documented roughly 120 Confederate monuments across the state of North Carolina.
Most were commissioned in the early years of the 1900s, as many Southern states promulgated the “Lost Cause” ideology that minimized the role of slavery in the Civil War and emphasized states’ rights or the Southern way of life.
The three most prominent are on the grounds of the State Capitol in Raleigh.
The oldest and most prominent is 75 feet tall and directly in front of the capitol building facing Hillsborough Street. Known as the “Common Soldier Statue,” it was erected by the state of North Carolina using money appropriated by the General Assembly. Its inscription reads, “To our Confederate dead.”
The second Confederate monument is called the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, and depicts the Edgecombe County man who is thought to be the first North Carolinian killed in the Civil War. It was dedicated in 1912.
The third and final Confederate monument on the State Capitol grounds is called the “Confederate Women’s Monument” and was dedicated in 1914. It’s supposed to depict a grandmother imparting the history of the war with a young boy.
Why couldn’t the state just move them?
A 2015 state law passed by the General Assembly prohibits any historical markers or memorials on public property from being moved except under very limited circumstances.
An “object of remembrance” can be temporarily moved for a construction or renovation project, but must be replaced within 90 days.
Permanent relocation can only come only to preserve the object and must be moved to a place of “similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access.” The monument cannot be moved to a museum or cemetery.
If all those conditions are met, the public body must still get approval from the North Carolina Historical Commission to move the monument.
Facing calls to move Confederate markers, most elected officials have cited the law in explaining why their hands are tied.
Shortly after the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Gov. Roy Cooper called on the state legislature to repeal the law. He also started the process through the Historical Commission to gain legal approval to move the monuments on the State Capitol grounds to the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site in Johnston County.
What are the arguments for and against removing the monuments?
People who support keeping Confederate memorials generally say that ugly or not, these memorials represent history and that history should be preserved rather than destroyed. They argue that protections are needed to keep people from taking hasty actions that can’t be undone. Some have said that public agencies should add informative materials to put such memorials in context.
Opponents say that these memorials were created several decades after the Civil War to promote white supremacy rather than an accurate historical account. They generally argue that these monuments should only be in museums, if anywhere.
Some have been torn down or defaced by protestors. Isn’t that illegal?
Across the state, activists have attempted to damage or destroy Confederate monuments as an act of civil disobedience and a statement against white supremacy.
In Charlotte, a Confederate monument on land owned by Mecklenburg County was repeatedly defaced with spraypaint in 2017. The county ended up encasing it in glass to prevent damage.
Around the same time, protestors toppled a Confederate statue in front of the old courthouse inscribed with the phrase “In memory of the boys who wore the gray.” The statue was taken down in plain view of law enforcement and there was plenty of video evidence.
Prosecutors initially pressed charges. A judge dismissed all counts against one protestor, and then the district attorney dropped charges against five others.
The most recent statue destruction came this week, when the Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill was taken down by protestors.
The statue was dedicated in 1913 to honor UNC alumni and students who fought for the Confederacy.
What are politicians saying about the toppling of Silent Sam?
Nobody prominent has defended the statue. But most authorities have condemned the destruction of the UNC icon — or at least tsk-tsked protestors for doing something dangerous.
Gov. Roy Cooper said that while he understand “that many people are frustrated by the pace of change and he shares their frustration, but violent destruction of public property has no place in our communities.”
UNC chancellor Carol Folt said Tuesday that “last night’s actions were dangerous and unlawful, and we are fortunate that no one was injured.” She prefaced the statement by acknowledging that the monument had been divisive for years.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger had some of the strongest words. Here’s his statement.
It’s unclear whether the protestors will be prosecuted or whether UNC will restore the Silent Sam statue.
What did the N.C. Historical Commission decide?
The commission was tasked with approving or denying Gov. Cooper’s petition to move the Confederate monuments on the State Capitol grounds to the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site in Johnston County.
Citing the 2015 state law, a split N.C. Historical Commission voted not to approve moving the monuments.
The commission did vote unanimously to acknowledge that representation at the State Capitol grounds was imbalanced, and supported raising money to add monuments honoring African-Americans and other minority groups.
They also recommended adding signage putting the Confederate monuments in historical context.
In the meeting, commission member Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., a professional historian, did affirm at length that the Civil War was about slavery. He also acknowledged that the statues mean different things to different people. But he said that more than 80% of North Carolinians are not in favor of moving them, per public comments.
Other commission members said that the General Assembly is in its power to change the 2015 law, and said the commission could recommend adding more context around the monuments.
“I believe the monuments need to tell the truth,” said commission member Samuel Dixon. “I think we can tell a full and inclusive story.”
In a statement Wednesday, Gov. Cooper again called on the General Assembly to repeal the 2015 law.
“It is time for North Carolina to realize that we can document and learn from our history without idolizing painful symbols,” he said. “North Carolina is welcoming to all, and our most prominent public places should reflect that.”
What is the N.C. Historical Commission?
The body has been around since the early 1900s, but arguably has never had a more important role in North Carolina politics.
Governors appoint members to the N.C. Historical Commission. Today, it’s made up of 7 members appointed by former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, and 4 members appointed by Gov. Cooper, a Democrat.
Chairman David Ruffin, a Raleigh resident and co-founder of Credit Risk Management LLC, was appointed by Gov. Cooper.