Pasquotank commissioners reject Perry's request for discussion on monument
By Jon Hawley
Thursday, September 7, 2017
Despite renewed controversy over Confederate imagery, Pasquotank County commissioners voted 4-3 on Tuesday not to talk about the county's Confederate monument.
Last month, the Pasquotank County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for Pasquotank commissioners to adopt a resolution in support of moving the monument from the county courthouse. Commissioners don't have the authority to move the monument, absent a change in state law.
The Pasquotank NAACP called for relocating the monument following violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12. During those protests, avowed white supremacists and Nazis rallied to a Confederate monument in Charlottesville following a city council decision to remove it. The violence rekindled national debate over Confederate imagery, prompting Pasquotank NAACP President Keith Rivers and other local residents to say Pasquotank's 106-year-old monument should be moved from the courthouse green.
After noting that Elizabeth City City Council had voted in support of moving the monument, Rivers again called for commissioners to remove it from the courthouse. Rivers considers the monument, which was erected in 1911, a symbol of racism and injustice toward African Americans.
Also reiterating his opposition to the monument at Tuesday’s meeting was Joseph Persico, of Northeast NC Progressives, a citizens' group.
No one spoke in favor of the monument Tuesday night, though several county residents strongly defended it during commissioners' Aug. 21 meeting. The monument’s defenders said those decrying it were misrepresenting the causes of the Civil War and the monument's intent. They said the monument is meant to mark the dead and not endorse racism.
Following Rivers' and Persico's comments, Board of Commissioners Chairman Cecil Perry asked commissioners to modify the board’s meeting agenda to allow a discussion on the monument. Local governments routinely add items to agendas at the start of meetings. On Perry’s motion, however, only he and Commissioners Bettie Parker and Bill Sterritt voted to hold the discussion. Commissioners Joe Winslow, Jeff Dixon, Lloyd Griffin and Frankie Meads voted against holding the discussion.
Disappointed with the vote, Perry said he believed Tuesday was a good time for commissioners to talk about an issue that's facing Pasquotank and many other communities.
“Regardless of how we feel, regardless of how we think, a situation is in front of us,” Perry said, arguing that commissioners had an obligation as local leaders to engage a matter of public concern.
Sterritt was the only other commissioner to comment on the monument Tuesday. While he supported having a discussion, he seemed to suggest moving the monument could set a precedent that suppresses history.
“You need to be careful what you ask for,” he said.
In interviews Wednesday, Sterritt and other commissioners explained their reasons for their votes on discussing the NAACP’s request on the monument.
Sterritt said he opposes tearing the monument down, but would consider moving it to somewhere “more prominent.” He reiterated he doesn’t consider the monument a racist symbol, nor one erected to support “Jim Crow” laws used against African Americans during the early 20th century.
Dixon similarly said he considers the monument a memorial to local veterans, and “my view all along is I don't see a reason for moving it.” He also said the monument being erected during the Jim Crow era was a coincidence.
Dixon also expressed concerns about the logistics of moving the monument without damaging it. He said it's not clear to him who owns the monument, nor is it clear how difficult and costly moving it would be. He said he opposed the county having to pay to move it. He said he would support moving the monument to Museum of the Albemarle, but not to a cemetery.
Griffin said his views on the monument haven't changed from two years ago, when Rivers first called for the monument's removal. He sees it as a historical marker no different than the monument at Elizabeth City's Veterans Park, he said. That park doesn't recognize Confederate soldiers.
Parker said Wednesday she remains in favor of relocating the monument, and questioned why commissioners refused to discuss it.
“What was that going to hurt?” she said, noting holding the discussion would have at least let the public know where commissioners stand. Like Perry, she also commented, “I do not believe (this issue) is going to go away.”
Winslow and Meads couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but both have said several times they consider the monument a historical marker and support keeping it where it is.
Also in attendance for Tuesday's meeting were Elizabeth City City Councilors Johnnie Walton and Michael Brooks, who expressed disappointment in commissioners' vote. Walton said people need to recognize the monument is a painful and offensive symbol to many.
“Denial is one of the biggest things that keeps people from going forward,” he said.
Brooks described commissioners' lack of discussion as “a step back in race relations,” and argued the issue still needs attention.
“If you don't discuss something that's happening, it doesn't get better, it gets worse,” he said.