Sunday, February 25, 2024

Wilmington leaders largely silent on Confederate statues, mayor orders their protection

A woman walks past Wilmington’s Confederate Memorial on Monday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — City leaders have largely stayed silent concerning the requested removal and preservation of two Confederacy statues that have overlooked downtown Wilmington since at least 1924. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill Saffo has issued a curfew to protect the statues, banning foot traffic in four city blocks surrounding the monuments for at least five consecutive nights.

The city’s lack of response to the request comes amid a growing movement to remove the monuments from public spaces and place them in museums; by early Monday afternoon, more than 14,800 people had signed a petition to do so. The number of signatures has nearly tripled since June 12, when the petition had collected more than 5,200 signatures. The group is also calling for the removal of the Confederate Soldiers Monument at Oakdale Cemetery.

The petition is addressed to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo (D); state representatives Deb Butler (D), Ted Davis Jr. (R), and Holly Grange (R); state senators Harper Peterson (D) and Bill Rabon (R); and the Board of Directors of Oakdale Cemetery Company.

RELATED: Momentum gathering for removal, preservation of Confederate monuments in downtown Wilmington

On Saturday, Mayor Saffo issued a curfew on pedestrian activity on four blocks surrounding the two downtown monuments — on Market Street from 3rd Street to 5th Avenue, an area east of the George Davis statue, and on 3rd Street from Market Street to Orange Street, on either side of the Confederate Memorial. The curfew does not include a ban of foot traffic on any sidewalks in these areas, as clarified by a city tweet on Saturday.

The curfew went into effect on Saturday evening, June 20, from 7:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night for five nights “or until otherwise noted.”

“There shall be no foot traffic within any of these portions of streets during these curfew hours,” going from curb to curb, including both medians, Saffo pronounced.

On Monday afternoon, Senator Peterson said it was a local issue and therefore could not speak on behalf of the city’s leaders, but did share his own belief on the matter.

“Personally I think they need to be removed,” he said. “They’re a contradiction to the American dream and the Democratic experiment that I grew up to believe in: equal opportunity, equal protection under the law.”

He believes state lawmakers need to repeal a 2015 state law that prohibits the permanent removal of ‘objects of remembrance’ — including statues — on public property.

“That has to be revisited, and I think that’ll take place in the near future,” Peterson said.

A ‘Community Leader Forum on Race’ is scheduled for Monday night from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., hosted by Mayor Saffo and Councilman Kevin Spears on the city’s Facebook page. A city spokesperson hinted that the issue could be addressed during the forum as the city continues to discuss it.

Editor’s Note: After the article was published, the Wilmington Police Department issued a Monday afternoon statement on its Twitter account: “We want to be clear that our security measures at the monuments are not a show of support for the Confederacy and what it represents. We are simply protecting what we believe is City property until a decision is made regarding their removal.”

A growing call to remove and preserve

Caution tape surrounded the George Davis statue on Market and Third Street in downtown Wilmington Monday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

On June 9, the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) issued a statement of support for the “lawful and safe removal” of the George Davis statue and the Confederate Memorial, both on or near Third Street in downtown Wilmington.

“These artworks do not represent the values of the City of Wilmington or this organization,” Executive Director Beth Rutledge said in a release. “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.”

Lily Nicole, a leader of a local protest movement created in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, was less cautious in her response.

“F— them statues,” she texted early Monday afternoon. “We want them moved. And [we] have asked for them to be. We offered up relocating them to a memorial garden somewhere downtown.”

She later elaborated.

“They are acting as overseers; they overlook our everyday existence,” she said in a phone call.

She said there are many vacant lots of land in downtown, including proposed green spaces, that could house the statues.

“So just coral them b—–s up and put them there as a memorial garden. It can be a tourist attraction for all we care; we just don’t want them staring down at us [at those intersections],” she said.

Although removals of the statues were not included in a list of seven demands presented by the protestors to the city through the recently formed Wilmington Advocacy and Protest Organization (WAPO), she said it came down to a matter of needing the time and place to pitch the proposal.

But leaders of the protest movement have helped circulate the petition, as well as one for the renaming of Hugh MacRae Park, which by Monday afternoon had also collected around 14,800 signatures.

RELATED: County quietly removed at least three Hugh MacRae Park signs after they were vandalized

She said leaders have spoken up about their desire to remove the monuments since the first protests materialized on Saturday, May 29 — a day before riot control officers used tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse protestors throughout downtown Wilmington.

“[Protest] leaders have always been in talks trying to make sure the issue was brought up,” Nicole said. “If I had an opportunity to share with Council, it would’ve been brought up, but I got kicked out of [the Council meeting], so I never received a chance.”

Silence from the city

On June 10, a day after HWF issued its statement, Port City Daily asked the city’s spokesperson whether Wilmington leaders had considered installing plaques to the monuments in order to provide context that would express the ideals of the Jim Crow era in which the monuments were built. For ten days, there was no response.

Following additional questions sent Monday morning — including questions regarding the city’s response to the HWF’s request, echoing many protestors’ similar requests, and by whose authority any removals or alterations could occur — city spokesperson Dylan Lee provided the city’s response.

“These are all issues that are actively being discussed within the City right now, and with the public as well (for instance, tonight’s televised forum at 6:30 pm) and the city will provide information when we have more definite answers. These are complicated issues that include legal questions that date back to the early 1900’s, as well as current laws. It is simply taking time to answer these questions with certainty,” according to Lee.

On June 11, Port City Daily also sent questions to Tony McEwen, the city’s legislative liaison, asking whether the city had engaged state lawmakers about changing the state statute that prevents the removal of the city’s two Daughters of the Confederacy monuments.

“The City has not engaged our legislators on this issue, that I am at all aware of,” McEwen replied.

Asked whether there is any statutory or property-ownership hurdle to placing contextualizing plaques adjacent to the statutes, he replied, “We will take a look at this issue and furnish you with a response.”

There has been no response since his June 11 email.

While the downtown 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 slavery era and intimidation and disenfranchisement of black citizens, pushing back against their newly enfranchised rights, including at the polls.

During the 2019 election, several of the incumbent candidates noted the 2015 law protecting statues as an obstacle to addressing the issue. In addition to McEwen’s apparent lack of engagement to discuss the law with state representatives, it also remains unclear if there are any legal roadblocks to adding contextual signage to the monuments.

The call to remove Confederate statues has grown throughout the South following the killing of Floyd on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knee-choked him for nearly nine minutes. He was captured on video pleading with the officer to relent, repeatedly saying that he could not breathe.

Statues have been removed across the region, either lawfully or unlawfully. Raleigh’s tallest Confederate monument was removed from the Capitol lawn on Sunday, where it had stood for 125 years. This came after Governor Roy Cooper on Saturday ordered the monument, along with two others, removed from the state Capitol grounds to ensure public safety — a day after protestors illegally pulled down two bronze figures of soldiers at the base of the Confederate monument.

Construction crews removed the Wyatt Monument and the Women of the Confederacy statues on Saturday morning.

This article has been updated at 5:25 p.m., Monday, June 22, to clarify the parameters of the curfew, which does not include a ban of foot traffic on any sidewalks. The update also included a response from the Wilmington Police Department.

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