Pasquotank County will move the Confederate monument from the courthouse square, using the “public safety” exception in state law allowing its removal.
The Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 Monday night to move the monument and have the board’s Special Projects Committee determine where it will go. That board is expected to meet next month.
Voting to move the monument from where it’s been since 1911 were Commissioners Lloyd Griffin, Cecil Perry, Barry Overman and Charles Jordan. Voting to keep the monument on the courthouse square were Commissioners Sean Lavin and Frankie Meads and board Chairman Jeff Dixon.
A 2015 law passed by state lawmakers prohibited the removal of “objects of remembrance” like Confederate monuments from public property without state approval. The law, however, included several exceptions, one allowing removal if the monument has become a “threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.”
County Manager Sparty Hammett told the board Monday that keeping the monument at the county courthouse could turn into a “public safety issue.”
Hammett noted a there was a recent “riot” in Greenville over its Confederate statue and that the monument at the Pasquotank Courthouse has been vandalized in the past.
The county also recently had to put up fencing around the statue after law enforcement intelligence showed a group from Virginia was planning to come to Elizabeth City in opposition to a proposed peaceful rally.
“As a public official and based on observations, research, community discussion and in consultation with law enforcement, I have determined the Confederate monument poses a threat to public safety,” Hammett told the board. “It creates a dangerous condition for the property, law enforcement and citizens in our community.”
Leaving the monument at the courthouse could make it a target for future protests, Hammett said.
“As more jurisdictions move their Confederate monuments, there is a likelihood that the remaining monuments will bring in outside groups that could result in both property damage and violence,” Hammett said.
The board’s vote followed more than an hour of public comment and commissioner deliberations on the monument’s future. Around 20 people addressed commissioners about the monument, with about 60 percent speaking in favor of keeping it on the courthouse square and around 40 percent seeking its removal.
Larry Cooke said he was opposed to removing the monument, calling it a memorial and likening it to a “headstone in a family cemetery.”
Forrest Turner also was opposed to the moving the monument, calling it a “reminder of a distant past.” He also told the board that the monument’s removal should be put on the ballot for the county’s voters to decide.
“It is an artistic reminder of a distant time,” Turner said. “It was built by our ancestors, the people who lived in this area. Most of us have family that go back that far. I understand how people could be offended by that culture, it offends me. But it is still a memorial to the dead who served in a war. We should keep the history, we should learn by the history, and we should teach the history.”
However, Ray Donnelly, a former city councilor, urged the board to remove the monument, saying it doesn’t belong on public property.
“On public property it does tend to be intimidation,” Donnelly said. “Jim Crow, we don’t need that. I don’t have a problem with the monument at all, I can appreciate monuments like that but move it to another location — not on public property.”
Pasquotank County NAACP President Keith Rivers also supported moving the monument, calling on the county to remove a “symbol of oppression” from public property.
“It is the right thing to do,” Rivers said. “Let us send a message to all the citizens of Pasquotank County, to the state and to nation that we in Pasquotank County can do the right thing and send a message out that we stand for justice for all.”
Meads said he was opposed to removing the monument because it is a part of the county’s history and wondered why after 109 years it has all of the sudden become a problem.
“What we seem to forget is that this is a reminder of history that took place,” Meads said. “We need to know history so it does not repeat itself. We need to be constantly reminded and that is why that monument is sitting there.”
Overman said he understands that the monument causes pain for some people and that he struggled with the issue. Sending the issue to the Special Projects Committee to find a more “suitable location” away from the courthouse would be a compromise, he said.
“I don’t take these decisions lightly,” Overman said. “I received a lot of emails and a lot of letters and we have 40,000 people that live in the county. Every single one of them has an opinion on this and other issues. Let’s see if there is a compromise to where we can move it.”
The Special Projects Committee, whose members include Dixon, Perry and Overman, will now study how the monument should be removed, how much it will cost to remove and where it should be relocated. The panel will then return to commissioners with their recommendations for a vote.