Saturday, January 28, 2023

Remnants of Confederate statues now removed from downtown Wilmington

City of Wilmington contracted crews to remove the two pedestals of the two Confederate statues that were stowed away in June 2020 at the height of Black Lives Matter protests across the city. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — The City of Wilmington blocked off streets in downtown Wilmington — from Market and 3rd to Orange streets — early Sunday morning to remove two pedestals that were home to century-old Confederate monuments. The pedestals were the last remains of the controversial statues that have made headlines over the past year.

In June 2020, the city removed the statues in the middle of the night and stowed them away to an undisclosed location while it decided what moves to make next. The decision came at the height of 2020’s summer protests, spurred by the murder of George Floyd — not to mention on the heels of the firing of three Wilmington cops, whose racist conversations and threats were caught on a dash-cam recording (Port City Daily first broke the news).

Two weeks ago, the city announced it came to a settlement agreement with Cape Fear 3 (CF3), the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), to return the monuments to the nonprofit, its original owners. The city also agreed to cover costs of removal and interim storage until the chapter could figure out what to do with the memorials.

According to the Cape Fear Historical Institute, the bronze and granite George Davis monument on Market Street, which stood 8-feet tall and weighed 1,700 pounds, was unveiled by CF3 in 1911. To pay for the statue, the chapter held a fundraising campaign, with the bulk of donations coming from philanthropist and historian James Sprunt. Davis was the attorney general of the Confederate states and a known secessionist, who argued in the mid-1800s, “The division must be made on the line of slavery. The State must go with the South.”

The monument at 3rd and Dock streets, also known as the “Boney Monument” — paid for by the will of Gabriel James Boney, who named CF3 to erect the statue — featured two bronze and steel sculptured Confederate soldiers. A document from UNC notes the memorial of the soldiers stood “as the figures of courage and sacrifice,” with the Latin phrase “Pro Aris et Focis” inscribed on it, which translates to “for God and country.” The document also mentions the stone pedestal was defaced in 1950 and had to be replaced.

The monuments have become a point of contention for activists throughout recent years. The CF3 conceptualized the George Davis statue in 1901, only three years after the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations drew in protesters, who often gathered in front of the memorials with signs; police patrol was increased near the medians in response.

Protesters often demonstrated in front of the Confederate monuments in the summer of 2020. (Port City Daily/Photo by Mark Darrough)

The City of Wilmington decided the statues were a threat to public safety, an exemption which would allow their removal according to the object of remembrance statute 100-2.1, created in 2015. On June 25, 2020, the city removed both monuments temporarily.

“In light of growing controversy around the monuments, a curfew on pedestrian activity in the vicinity of these two monuments has been in place since Saturday, June 20,” the city then stated. “This underscores the need to temporarily move these monuments in accordance with NC law, which requires state approval for any monument of remembrance to be permanently moved but allows an exception for temporary removal in the interest of public safety.”

A little over a year later, the city has concluded, after research from city officials, it does not retain ownership over the monuments.

On July 5, it received a letter from CF3’s president Rhonda Florian stating the organization owned the statues.

One of the exemptions allowing an object of remembrance to be abolished from public property comes when the memorials are privately owned, and are “the subject of a legal agreement between the private party and the State or a political subdivision of the State governing the removal or relocation of the object,” according to the statute.

“City of Wilmington staff performed a thorough review of city records and researched the legal matters concerning objects of remembrance,” city spokesperson Jennifer Dandron confirmed to Port City Daily last week.

City attorney John Joye said they found century-old council-meeting minutes, as well as information from a city board-of-commissioners meeting expressing the city permitted the statues to be erected in both medians. Yet, Joye said he found nothing to prove the city’s proprietorship and concluded the city was a “de facto steward” of the monuments.

He made a presentation to city council on Aug. 2, 2021 at its agenda briefing meeting to show the city’s findings. Council then voted 6-1 on a settlement agreement to return the monuments to its rightful owners.

Amid the news, disharmony mounted within CF3 who wrote to the city to inform its president, Florian, had no authorization to take back the statues. The president of the state division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) joined the voices. Sara Powell wrote to Joye on official UDC letterhead that Florian didn’t act with authorization from her board and in fact blindsided the organization.

“The members had no idea of her actions until they heard it from the news media,” Powell wrote. 

Powell maintained the statues were a gift to the city and pointed to a 1909 news article reporting on a George Davis dedication ceremony.

“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 over a week ago. “The city granted permission, and then the city over the years has acted as a de facto steward.” 

Powell is firm the monuments should be returned to their original locations. The UDC has pursued lawsuits in other cities across North Carolina to uphold the state statute. At the beginning of the year, it appealed the North Carolina Supreme Court decision, which dismissed its request to have a Confederate soldier statue returned to downtown Winston-Salem.

“The city stands by its decision to enter into a valid and binding agreement with CF3 and will continue to abide by its terms,” Dandron told Port City Daily Aug. 9.

A release from the city on Sunday morning noted “the city has fulfilled its obligations by moving the statues and pedestals to interim storage until Cape Fear 3 initiates the transfer of possession.”

Read full coverage from Port City Daily about the Confederate monuments:

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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