WILMINGTON –– One year after they were abruptly removed in the dark, early-morning hours and hauled to a secret location, Wilmington City Council decided (publicly, this time) prominent Confederate monuments won’t return to their highly visible medians downtown. City council approved a settlement agreement with a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy 6-1 at Monday morning’s agenda briefing.
Cape Fear 3 will retake possession of the statues a century after first erecting them. The city is also removing pedestals, currently covered in brown tarps, and turning each over to the nonprofit organization.
In June 2020, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests downtown, Wilmington police relocated the statues overnight to an undisclosed location. The city authorized the monuments’ removal within 12 hours of news breaking that three cops had been fired after they were caught engaging in private racist conversations.
For several weeks last summer, a citywide state of emergency was in effect in response to protests for George Floyd’s murder.
One statue, in the Market Street median near 3rd Street, honored Confederate Senator and Attorney General George Davis and the other, located in the 3rd Street median by Dock Street, memorialized for soldiers of the Confederacy. Cape Fear 3 independently financed the Davis monument and oversaw the creation of the soldiers of the Confederacy statue using funds from the Gabriel James Boney estate. Since last year’s removal, the pedestals have remained wrapped in a brown tarp shielded from public view.
At the time, the city cited a state statute that mandates how local governments can remove publicly owned “objects of remembrance,” which includes an exemption for temporary removal if the monuments threaten public safety. Now, the city’s attorney is asserting this statute doesn’t apply to these statues because they aren’t publicly owned.
A ‘de facto steward’
Sometime over the past year, Cape Fear 3 approached the city asserting its claim to the monuments, according to a city press release sent after the Monday morning agenda briefing concluded. The disclosure of the settlement negotiations and city attorney’s public presentation did not appear on the agenda.
After a closed session Monday, city attorney John Joye gave an unexpected presentation. Council has the ability to take action during these Monday morning meetings, which begin at 8:30 a.m., but it generally reserves most of its official decision-making for regular meetings on Tuesdays, typically beginning at 6:30 p.m., when the public is available to attend after regular business hours. The purpose of the Monday meetings is so council members can familiarize themselves with topics and give staff a brief window of time to prepare additional requested information ahead of an actual vote on the topic.
An accurate timeline of negotiations has yet to be disclosed, but Cape Fear 3 has negotiated with city staff to arrive at the settlement agreement, according to Joye’s presentation. The group sent the city a claim letter July 5, asserting its ownership over the Davis and Boney statues.
Joye and the city clerk dug out century-old meeting minutes to determine ownership of the monuments, and found references in 1909 to Davis and in 1922 to Boney, granting permission to Cape Fear 3 to place the statues in the center of Market and 3rd streets. These references contain what Joye considers to be the best evidence to support the group’s ownership claim, he said.
“There is no evidence that I could find, no evidence whatsoever, that there was ever an offer of gift, an offer of dedication, there is no written or any indication that there was an acceptance of such on the part of the city,” Joye said. “The city granted permission, and then the city over the years has acted as a de facto steward.”
Under the settlement agreement, the city will place the statues in storage until Cape Fear 3 takes possession of them. The group also releases the city from all maintenance responsibilities and claims it could assert regarding the statues’ condition (considering they have likely deteriorated over time and were removed without the group’s authorization). The city incurs no cost for storing the statues, according to the city’s spokesperson.
Joye recommended council approve the settlement in the interest of public safety due to traffic, because it “avoids undue risk, legal or otherwise,” and because it prevents costly litigation other cities have recently been embroiled in.
Council member Charlie Rivenbark scoffed at the traffic-safety characterization. “Thousands of cars have passed by these statues for as long as those roads have been four-lane,” he said. “So that’s bull. We’re taking these down because of mob rule.”
Rivenbark said Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams told council he couldn’t guarantee safety of the monuments –– information that was used as a prerequisite for for removing them. “[W]e chose in the late hours of that night –– not even a vote –– we just went around the table and nodded our heads to do it,” he said. “And I regret that to this day that we didn’t bring that out and do it in the light of day where everybody could see what we were doing.”
(It is unclear whether how and when this nod vote took place in consideration of the state’s Open Meetings Law.)
The councilman said he would have preferred to take the vote on the settlement agreement during a regular Tuesday evening meeting as opposed to a Monday morning briefing. “Those statues have been there for 100 years. It wouldn’t have hurt anything any longer for them to be there any longer,” he said. When it came time for Rivenbark to cast his vote, he said, “Not no but hell no.”
Councilman Kevin O’Grady said he felt the settlement was appropriate and needed to be resolved. “It’s not something that we put up to a public vote,” he said.
Councilman Neil Anderson, who is known to side with Rivenbark on occasion, said while he thought the move was “proper,” he also wished the public could have had more warning. “I just will say I do wish we’d given the public a little notice,” he said. “But that’s . . . sometimes not possible, I guess . . . sometimes there’s other constraints that force you to have to go ahead and move on.”
View the settlement agreement below:
Update: This article originally incorrectly stated council did not meet the evening prior to the monument’s initial 2020 removal. Council did meet the evening prior.
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