WILMINGTON — It’s been nearly 90 days since the City of Wilmington temporarily removed two Confederate statues but, contrary to some rumors, those statues are unlikely to be returned to their downtown pedestals in the near future.
The misunderstanding may come from the 2015 North Carolina law that made it illegal to relocate “monuments, memorials, works of art” — including Wilmington’s two Confederate statutes. That law includes a caveat that memorials can be removed temporarily for a variety of reasons, but requires they are replaced within 90 days of the “completion of the project that required its temporary removal.”
Such ‘projects’ usually refer to roadwork or building and facility maintenance, but a sub-section of the statute also provides for the removal of “an object of remembrance for which a building inspector or similar official has determined poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition.”
As the City of Wilmington announced after removing the statues in the early morning hours of June 25, “recent protests and controversy over these monuments has grown to a point that the monuments, in their original locations, were a threat to public safety.”
According to a city spokesperson, it’s the city’s interpretation of the law that the 90-day window to return the statues starts when the “threat to public safety” is no longer present — not, importantly, from the moment the statues are removed; a legal analogy here would be to the temporary removal of the statues for a road improvement project, where the 90-day clock would start at the completion of the work, not from the day the statues were moved.
Back in late June, the city cited the state of emergency put in place for several weeks in response to protests addressing the murder of George Floyd. According to a city spokesperson, the level of public unrest around the country has not dissipated significantly. In other words, it’s the city’s opinion that the public safety concern which originally motivated the statues’ removal is still present. That means that the 90-day clock has yet to start ticking.
It’s worth noting that the recent calls for removing or relocating the Confederate statues are hardly the first time the city has faced pressure on the issue. While elected officials have routinely dodged the question of the monuments by pointing to state law, the city has taken little if any action to address or work around that law itself.
Some cities have considered simply breaking state law, preferring to face potential civil suits than continue to let Confederate statues stand. But there is another option: lobbying.
The City of Wilmington has a full-time legislative liaison, Tony McEwen, whose job is to coordinate the city’s lobbying to push for beneficial legislation in Raleigh (and D.C.). According to McEwen, who was hired prior to the passage of the monuments law, the city has never engaged legislators on the issue.
There’s also another alternative to relocating the statues — posting explanatory signage that provides historical context. However, despite repeated inquiries, the city has not provided an answer to whether there any statutory or property-ownership hurdles to placing contextualizing signs adjacent to those statues.