Rod Phillips mug

Rod Phillips

A few weeks ago a young couple from out of town was visiting us here in Edenton and I was showing them around our downtown area. As we came out of Surf, Wind and Fire, my friend looked out toward the bay, looked up, paused for a few seconds with mouth agape, and said, “That looks like a...” He stopped.

I finished his sentence: “… a Civil War statue.”

After another pause and a very big smile, my friend asked, “Why is that still here?”

Well, I gave him the usual mumbo jumbo about Edenton being a small conservative community, about how a lot of our citizens seem afraid to speak out publicly on controversial issues for fear of offending a neighbor or co-worker, of losing their job, of losing customers.

In other words, a polite society’s addiction to the status quo.

And then I said, “But the real reason it’s still here is...”

And we both said at the same time, “...defiance.”

I’ve lived in the South all my life. I spent grade school and high school in segregated school systems. I saw the “Colored” and “White” signs on restroom doors and restaurant entrances growing up in Johnston County.

In Smithfield in the late 1960s and early ‘70s I drove by a “KKK Welcome to Smithfield” billboard on my daily trip in to work. (You can find a photo via google – if you’re lucky you’ll land on the one with “integration” misspelled).

I heard all the jokes. I witnessed the injustices (being White, from a distance I will confess). I put up with the stubbornness. And I sidestepped as much of the ignorance as I could.

I think I know something about how the Southern mind works.

For these monument worshipers it goes something like this: Southern man don’t want to be told what to do. Not by “northerners.” Not by the federal government. Not by know-it-all White do-gooders. Not by disrespectful Black activists.

Keep your wimpy liberal hands off our statues.

Refusal to remove these monuments has nothing to do with preserving history or respecting our Civil War dead or honoring our ancestors. It’s all about defiance. Everything else is just song and dance, a glorious smokescreen – excuses. Defiance is the reason.

Do you think it is accidental that the statue at the top of this monolith – determined visage, rifle at the ready with finger on trigger – faces north (as it also did in its original installation in front of our old Colonial courthouse)? Defiance.

I’ll avoid the hysterics of calling those who fought for the South traitors. George Washington was a traitor – his leading the fight to secede from his mother country England was treasonous at the time. But his cause was just. And most importantly, he won.

The Southern cause was not just – wrong side of history as they say. And most importantly, we lost. There are consequences to fighting and losing an illegitimate war. One of those consequences is that you don’t get to dot the landscape with monuments that allow you to thumb your nose at the victor.

Removing this monument would not be erasing history, it would be reconciling ourselves to it. It would be a move to look forward rather than backward.

The Edenton Human Relations Commission is recommending that this monument be “re-located to an appropriate place.” As far as I’m concerned, that appropriate place could be a landfill somewhere. Barring that, reinstallation on private property with the stipulation that not a dime of public money is to be spent on its upkeep would be my next choice.

But, if the consensus is to move it to the back side of a cemetery on the edge of town, I would settle for that. Out of sight, out of mind.

(Prediction: If we move this monument to city-owned property requiring public money for upkeep, we’re just kicking the can down the road as far as a final resolution of this matter.)

According to the latest U.S. Census, Chowan County’s population in 2020 was 13,708. In 2010 it was 14,793. The town’s population is now 4,460, down from 5,004. The reasons for this precipitous drop are undoubtedly many. 0

But I wonder if one of them is this: Is our Civil War monument serving as a sort of scarecrow, helping the town make sure downtown Broad Street remains basically a playground for Whites?

Is this statue to be Edenton’s billboard? And what will be its perceived message?

Do we really not care what visitors (and potential future residents) who look at this thing might think?

I believe that a good reading of the historical record, including dedication speeches, shows that the Civil War monuments that were scattered across the Southern landscape in the early 20th century were generally installed to celebrate and reinforce White supremacy. But regardless of what they meant then, what’s more important is what they mean now. And now they are simply perceived as racist. They are nothing less than an exhibition of our worst tendencies.

This monument will go eventually. Maybe in a few months, maybe in a few years. But it will go. What are we waiting for?

We’ll never please everyone on both sides of the issue. So why not take the path that does the least harm and most good for the most people? If we are to err in this process, why not err on the side of enlightenment and good will?

Why not just get rid of this relic now when we have the opportunity to do the right thing voluntarily, graciously, before we are forced to?

Rod Phillips is a resident of Edenton and a contributor to the Chowan Herald. He can be reached via email at rhillips@aol.com.

Thadd White is Group Editor of the Bertie Ledger-Advance, Chowan Herald, Perquimans Weekly, The Enterprise & Eastern North Carolina Living. He can be reached via email at twhite@ncweeklies.com.