Residents of Gaston County have filed a suit in state court to remove the towering “Confederate Heroes” monument in front of the county court house in Gastonia.
The complaint, filed Thursday, centers on the monument that the Gaston County Board of Commissioners voted to remove on August 3. But later that month, the Sons of Confederate Veterans group to whom the county agreed to give the statue refused to accept it. The board voted to keep it where it stands indefinitely.
The plaintiffs —including the Gaston County branch of the NAACP, Gaston County chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans and the Eta Mu Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Inc. fraternity— say that’s unacceptable.
The 35- foot tall statue’s base reads “Confederate Heroes” on its front. The east side of the base reads, “The noble service of the sons of Gaston County is our perpetual heritage.”
Keeping such a statue standing before the courthouse violates the state constitution, the plaintiffs said, which prohibits “government action that sows disunion, denies equal protection, exhibits racial discrimination, and squanders public money.”
The plaintiffs’ legal team includes civil rights specialists Cheyenne Chambers and Abraham Rubert-Shewel, consumer protection attorneys Gagan Gupta and Stuart Payner, Gastonia attorney and community leader Cheryl Comer and Hampton Dellinger, a former North Carolina deputy attorney general. They say their hope is that a victory in the Gastonia suit will help communities across North Carolina remove the approximately 40 Confederate monuments that still stand in front of or near county courthouses.
“No court of justice can be truly colorblind when it’s guarded by a monument to white supremacy,” Dellinger said in a statement Thursday. “The goal of this suit is to unite the dozens of cities and towns across North Carolina where Confederate monuments still stand at courthouse entrances. They are divisive and costly symbols causing real pain and real problems. Elected officials have had more than enough time to end these controversies. Today, we are asking the courts to do so.”
The Gastonia statue was erected in 1912 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the J.D. Moore chapter of the Children of the Confederacy.
As Policy Watch has reported, the United Daughters of the Confederacy was involved in erecting most of the state’s Confederate monuments, including the controversial Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill toppled by protesters in 2018. The group organized the erection of such monuments throughout the country as newly invigorated white supremacist campaigns disfranchised Black voters and brought about legal segregation.
“It was about vindication,” said Dr. Karen Cox, UNC-Charlotte history professor and author of the book “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,”
“The work that they did was about vindicating their ancestors,” Cox said in an interview with Policy Watch in 2018. “For that early generation of women that was their parents or their grandparents. They wanted to lift them out of the specter of defeat and portray them as heroes or heroines. They don’t want their names to be sullied or to think of them in terms of defeat, to be called traitors”
UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Harry Watson put the rise of the monuments into context in a 2017 interview with Policy Watch.
In the Jim Crow era, in the wake of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the Wilmington Massacre in 1898, Watson said that America was in the nadir of post-war race relations.
“Beginning in the 1890s and going on into the 1900s, the South had gone through a political cataclysm wherein the white majority figured out ways to strip black men of their rights – and the right to vote – without provoking a Northern reaction,” Watson said. “As a result, black men were driven out of politics across the South.”
The monuments were party of “the white South taking a victory lap,” Watson said.
“They were saying that they had in effect now won the Civil War,” Watson said. “They were saying, ‘We’ve reclaimed our homeland, we can dictate racial relations without interference – and now we should put up these statues to remind us and everyone else that this is what the Civil War was all about and now we’ve won.”
In February an Orange County Superior Court judge scrapped a deal in which the UNC System would have given the toppled Silent Sam statue to the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, along with a $2.5 million payout for the statue’s care.
In June, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the three Confederate monuments removed from the Capitol grounds for public safety reasons after protesters pulled down two bronze soldier statues from the 75-foot monument that had stood there for more than a century, hanging one by its neck from a street light.
Two years ago, the State Historical Commission decided not to remove the same monuments. The commissioners said at the time that they felt constrained by a 2015 monuments law to keep the statues in place.