For the third time in five years, the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners will discuss whether the courthouse square is the appropriate place for a monument celebrating Confederate soldiers.
County Manager Sparty Hammett confirmed that commissioners plan to discuss the 109-year-old monument’s future during the board’s next meeting on July 13.
“The board just wants to discuss in a proactive way whether the monument should continue to be where it is,” he said.
Erected with both city and county approval as well as financial support in 1911 by the now-defunct D.H. Hill Chapter of the United Daughters of Confederacy, the Pasquotank monument — a 6-foot granite statue of a Confederate soldier standing atop a 25-foot granite pedestal — pays tribute to the Confederacy and those who fought for it during the Civil War.
The monument, like the more than 100 others built across North Carolina during roughly the same time period, 1900 to 1930, has quietly remained in a place of prominence for over a century. In Elizabeth City, it stands between two courthouses and looks southward over Main Street.
But with most historians now in agreement the Confederacy, which included North Carolina, fought the Civil War to keep the ancestors of Black Americans enslaved, calls have increased in recent years to move the monuments.
Many Blacks see the monuments as lingering symbols of white supremacy and reminders of the racial oppression and violence Black people suffered up until the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. They contend the monuments should be removed from courthouses or other high-profile downtown areas to either museums or cemeteries.
Discussions about removing Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag from public spaces intensified in 2015 following the murder of nine Black church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina by an avowed white racist who draped himself in Confederate imagery. Those discussions were ignited again two years later following the slaying of a white woman protesting a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was killed by a white nationalist who drove his car into the crowd where she was walking.
Following both incidents, the Pasquotank chapter of the National Association of Colored People asked county commissioners to remove the Confederate monument from the courthouse square, calling it a symbol of both hate and white supremacy. But on both occasions the board declined, voting 4-3 each time to leave the monument where it is.
During the 2017 vote, commissioners also declined Elizabeth City City Council’s request that they petition state lawmakers to seek a change to a 2015 state law that prohibits, with limited exceptions, the removal of “objects of remembrance” like Confederate monuments from public property without state approval. The state’s Republican-led General Assembly had passed the law to prevent local officials, who they claimed were more susceptible to acting on public opinion, from hastily removing any public monuments, including Confederate statues.
The death of George Floyd, a black man, while in the custody of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 31 ignited nationwide protests of policing and racial justice. But it also reignited the debate about monuments, particularly those celebrating the Confederacy.
Protests over those monuments, some of which have included violence, have spurred a number of North Carolina cities — Raleigh, Asheville, Wilmington, Greenville, Henderson, Louisburg and Rocky Mount are just a few — to either remove their Confederate monuments or make plans to do so. Most have cited a “public safety” exemption in the 2015 state law as the basis for the removals.
The outrage over Floyd’s death has also renewed debate about removal of the Confederate monument in Pasquotank.
As of Friday morning nearly 2,800 people had signed an online petition on Change.org to remove the statue. Started by St. Louis resident Latonya Flowers, a former Elizabeth City resident, the petition calls the monument a “painful reminder of racial oppression and hatred endured by people of color” and asks that it be removed.
“Every city is recognizing the error of having them and with great hope we feel that our city should have the same and greater love, honor, kindness and respect for humanity. We want to be on the right side of history,” the petition reads.
Flowers’ petition has sparked at least two counter petitions on Change.org. One posted by Glenn McGuinness and addressed to Elizabeth City City Council, the city mayor and the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners, had attracted 915 signatures as of Friday morning. It asks those officials to “ignore” the petition to remove the monument and leave it and other statues in place.
“History can not be changed and must be observed and learned from,” it reads. “We must learn from the mistakes of the past and honor and remember the lives of our forefathers. The good and the bad must be preserved in order to gain a true understanding of our past and develop our future. These monuments are a part of our past, both good and bad; we must remember both or we are destined to repeat the bad.”
A second counter petition posted by Peggy Pavey requesting the monument stay where it is had attracted 141 signatures as of Friday morning.
“These statues and monuments represent the history and historical events that helped create our great city,” it reads. “These statues and monuments represent the men who died to protect their land and state. These statues and monuments should remain in place to remind all people of the past, so we as human beings can strive to be better human beings.”
The views expressed in the petitions — both for removing the monument and keeping it where it is — are similar to those expressed by members of the public during commissioners’ previous discussions on the issue in both 2015 and 2017.
Hammett said no member of the public had approached the county about removing the monument. But he confirmed that at least one commissioner has called for removing it. He declined to say who.
Commissioner Cecil Perry is the lone commissioner who remains from the board that voted with the minority both times to remove the monument. Asked if he had asked Hammett about moving the monument, Perry said he “probably did.”
As someone who experienced racism and discrimination firsthand during the Jim Crow era, Perry, who’s now in his 80s, said he knows the history of why the monument was put on the courthouse square, and it had nothing to do with honoring local soldiers.
“It was done to intimidate African Americans and to show them who was superior,” he said, noting the monument was erected long after the Civil War had ended and happened when governments across the South, including North Carolina’s, were dominated by white supremacists.
Perry also said it continues to puzzle him why monuments honoring people who seceded from the U.S. were erected in the first place.
“What other group of people could have fought against the United States of America and still be recognized?” he asked. “It’s wrong that it’s there, and it ought to be moved.”
Hammett said commissioners could take action on the monument following their July 13 discussion, but he declined to speculate what that action might be.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Dixon said if there are four votes for moving the monument — something that hasn’t happened the two previous times commissioners were asked to move it — the issue would be forwarded to the board’s Special Projects Committee, a panel that includes himself, Perry and Commissioner Barry Overman.
Dixon, who has voted previously to keep the monument at the courthouse, says he still feels that way.
“Bringing up things from the past doesn’t help us focus on the future,” he said. “So it should stay where it is.”
However, if commissioners were to vote to move the monument, there are a number of issues they’ll have to address, not the least of which is whether they can legally do so under the 2015 law.
“There’s also the expense of doing (removing) it, where it would be relocated to, whether it would be put in storage,” Dixon said.
Any decision by the Special Projects Committee about the monument’s future would have to come back to the full seven-member board for a final decision, he said.