WILMINGTON — Two bronzed figures of the Confederacy have looked over downtown Wilmington for nearly a century. For some, they are important monuments to the city’s history and should remain. For others, they are daily reminders that Africans once entered the city on slave ships docking at a port on the Cape Fear River.
While the statues commemorate the soldiers and leaders of the Confederacy, they are a product of the Jim Crow era, erected in 1911 and 1924. Historians often describe the statues as part of the ‘Lost Cause’ movement in the South that saw both sympathy and nostalgia for the chattel slavery era and intimidation and disenfranchisement of black citizens, pushing back against their newly enfranchised rights, including at the polls.
The statues are also protected by a 2015 state law that prohibits the permanent removal of ‘objects of remembrance’ — including statues — on public property. During the 2019 election, several of the incumbent candidates noted this law as an obstacle to addressing the issue. It’s worth noting that the city’s legislative liaison has not been engaged to discuss the law with state representatives. It’s also unclear if there are any legal roadblocks to adding contextual signage to the monuments.
Several cities around the state have challenged, ignored, or worked around the law — including Winston-Salem, where a statue was removed as a public nuisance, and Pittsboro, where the court found the property where the statue stood should not have been considered public.
A new petition to remove the statues
Kayla Ferguson was protesting at City Hall on Thursday evening, a block from a statue of George Davis, who was appointed by Jefferson Davis as the attorney general for the Confederate States. She moved to town from Charlotte in March, but she grew up in New York.
“It wasn’t until I moved to the South that I realized: Oh, people actually have statues of Confederate soldiers and slaveowners. It’s weird,” she said as protestors set off to march through downtown Wilmington in honor of black women.
She signed a petition that had collected more than 5,200 signatures by Friday morning, calling for Mayor Bill Saffo and other city and regional leaders to remove all “Confederacy objects of remembrance from public spaces” in Wilmington.
“The purpose of these monuments is to honor Confederacy beliefs, of which our city should rid itself,” the petition campaign creator, Melissa Porter, wrote. “The Confederacy fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy in the United States.”
She noted that Governor Roy Cooper had called for the removal of Confederate monuments, and urged Wilmington to follow suit.
On Tuesday, the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) issued a statement calling for the “lawful and safe removal of the George Davis monument at Third and Market as well as the Wilmington Confederate monument at Third and Dock.”
“These artworks do not represent the values of the City of Wilmington or this organization,” the organization stated. “It is HWF’s hope that the monuments will be relocated to a location where they may be preserved, interpreted, contextualized, and used expressly for educational purposes, rather than to continue to serve as visual public reminders of racial injustice.”
Reached by phone on Wednesday, HWF Executive Director Beth Rutledge said the statement speaks for itself, but emphasized that her organization was calling for the preservation of these monuments.
“This is not about taking down history; it’s about putting history in context. … I think one of the things that has been misinterpreted over the last 24 hours is the idea that we are somehow not wanting to save these. In fact, the opposite is true,” she said.
She said conversations are gaining momentum nationally and globally — and in North Carolina — in response to the death of George Floyd after he was knee-choked by a Minneapolis police officer for nearly nine minutes.
On Tuesday night, Asheville’s city council unanimously voted to remove Confederate monuments in the popular Blue Ridge Mountain town. The previous night, the Rocky Mount City Council voted to remove its own Confederate statue.
In Virginia, a Richmond judge temporarily blocked Governor Ralph Northam’s attempt to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the city’s historic Monument Avenue.
“I understand history’s important, and we need to know our history,” Ferguson said. “But I don’t think we need to see it every single day, especially a history that’s about states’ rights to own slaves, to own people who look like me.”
She said that when she moved to the city, the statues gave her the notion that this city may be unwelcoming toward black people.
Now, she supports moving the monuments to a museum or commemorative garden. She compared southern cities’ preservation of their Confederate histories, often glorified, to the preservation of the Auschwitz concentration camp as a somber reminder of Germany’s violent past.
“They’re not proud of that,” she said of the German people. “Whereas here, it feels like it’s a symbol of pride. Like, ‘Well these are the people who fought for us.’ But I’m like, ‘Yeah, but who did they fight for?’ … It was a sad time and a reminder of what not to do.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Port City Daily sent an email to a city spokesperson asking for the city’s plans regarding the monuments, including whether leaders were considering placing plaques on them to provide further context. He said he was waiting to hear back from city officials. (This article will be updated with his response.)
For Rutledge, plaques are more effective for monuments in places like parks, where people can easily read them. For the George Davis and Confederacy monuments on Third Street, seen mostly by passing cars, she argued that would be unreasonable given the logistical limitations.
“Right now, what we want to talk about is that we support the relocation of these so they can be used to help teach and share our history and put them in an interpretative, contextual way,” she said.
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