WILMINGTON –– The City of Wilmington finds itself in a relatively clear-cut position compared to other local governments messily entrenched in the post-George-Floyd climate of handling prominently displayed and now controversial Confederate monuments.
Notably kickstarted by the toppling of Silent Sam at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018, last summer’s nationwide protests further motivated cities across the country to address their often century-old antebellum markers with haste.
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Days after protesters dragged torn-down statues through Raleigh streets, crews finally disassembled a stubborn granite Confederate monument base that sat in its place for 125 years after struggling for three days to remove it. They were authorized to do so via an order from Governor Roy Cooper responding to civil unrest, despite a 2015 state law that renders removing “objects of remembrance” on public property onerous.
The Capitol statues came down June 24 –– the night before Wilmington crews, without warning, hastily removed its two notable Confederate statues downtown, sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. June 25, 2020. Twelve hours prior, Wilmington City Council convened for a special meeting to release the personnel records typically kept private of three Wilmington police officers, whose firing would rock the community. The officers’ private conversations were inadvertently recorded by police equipment, with one calling for a genocide of the Black community.
Earlier that month, city leaders invoked a one-week curfew, wary of public safety following an escalated demonstration May 31.
When the city removed the monuments (which had been vandalized June 16), it used its own staff and equipment and left the bulky pedestals behind.
A new settlement agreement between the monuments’ apparent owner, Cape Fear Chapter 3 (CF3), a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, stipulates the city will bear the cost of removing the two pedestals. Wrapped in brown tarp, the George Davis and soldiers of the Confederacy bases on Market and 3rd streets were too bulky for city crews to independently remove that early June morning.
“The pedestals were not removed a year ago because, quite frankly, it’s an undertaking to remove them,” city attorney John Joye said. “They are far heavier and you have to be very careful with them.”
At a still undetermined date, the city will remove the pedestals and place them in storage out of public view; the city bears no cost for storing the monuments, according to a city spokesperson. As part of the settlement agreement, CF3 released the city from any claims of damages to the monuments and will bear the cost of retrieving them at a time the group can accommodate.
Wilmington’s city manager at the time, Sterling Cheatham, made the call to remove the monuments. Monday, when approving the settlement agreement in open session, councilman Charlie Rivenbark said he regretted not speaking up against their removal in a late-night gathering when council members nodded their heads in approval; instead, he wished it would have been public.
Tuesday, Joye said he remembered the moment well, and believes Rivenbark was referring to a closed session discussion prior to the monuments’ removal. Joye couldn’t say which meeting this happened in –– plenty of high-interest meetings have occurred in the interim, he pointed out –– but did clarify the decision was not a vote. Joye and the manager were simply briefing council on a decision Cheatham already made, but “they certainly have the right to countermand the manager,” he added.
“Those were trying times around our entire nation. With the firing of three officers and the transparency that we showed, I think our community reacted incredibly well to that. They reacted very responsibly and reasonably,” Joye said. “It would be very easy to foresee it turning very violent or someone trying to tear down those statutes and getting hurt in the process. I think it was very reasonable for the manager to take that action.”
The city had not determined who the rightful owner of the monuments was, which sat on public property.
“At that point in time, we had not done the research, I don’t think anyone was certain who owns it or who has the superior claim,” Joye said. “We were simply addressing a public safety issue at that time.”
Gen. stat. § 100-2.1, crafted in 2015 specifically around the time of increasing calls to remove UNC’s Silent Sam, governs the removal of monuments located on public property. The definition of objects of remembrance within the statute does not specify ownership.
One of three exemptions to the statute’s application includes if the objects are owned by a private party, located on public property, and subject to a legal agreement governing the removal or relocation of the object.
The city’s settlement agreement actually creates an exemption to the statute that would otherwise still apply, Joye explained. “The statute has not undergone very much interpretation by the courts,” he added “Case law normally answers those questions definitively.”
Had CF3 not asked for the monuments, the city could have gone down the route of asking the nonprofit to take them back. “Some other cities tried to do precisely that,” Joye said. “In that case, when you’re dealing with a small organization, the likelihood of them coming and taking them back is, rather small. And I think other cities have found that.”
Without the settlement agreement –– and without CF3 asking for the statues back –– Wilmington would be caught in a trickier position if its leaders still wanted to remove the monuments permanently. Outside posing a threat to public safety (another exemption, for which it was removed in the first place), the city would be forced to relocate the monuments to “a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access” within city limits.
For local governments, the public safety exemption provides three-fold protection: It allows them to protect both the monuments and the people who endanger themselves in attempting to remove them and gives cities a reasonable out, falling short of making a definitive statement, when removing historically and politically unfavorable bastions.
The city stopped short of deeply reflecting on the symbolism of the monuments’ removal, but did sprinkle in a few hints of its evolved position regarding them. Among a list of reasons in the settlement agreement that prompted their removal (including traffic safety, which Rivenbark called “bull”), the city lists “the need to contextualize the historical nature of the Statues at a proper location.”
Reflecting on the monument-related lawsuits that have plagued other communities, Joye said he’s proud Wilmington could arrive at a reasonable and relatively simple solution. “I think a lot of folks, the community, as well as city staff, have worked very hard and have been able to come to something that is much more –– a cooperative effort that’s right for our community, instead of drawing battle lines and taking hostile or adversarial roles with each other,” he said.
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