The North Carolina Historical commission delayed a discussion on the removal of Confederate monuments from state property in downtown Raleigh Friday, pushing the issue to its April 2018 meeting so that it can receive legal opinions on the process and form a committee to study the issue.
Only one of the ten voting commissioners present – Dr. David Dennard, a history professor at East Carolina University in Greenville – voted against delaying the decision.
“Delaying it I don’t think is in the best interests of the people of North Carolina,” Dennard said after the meeting. “I think we need to have a robust discussion on the issue and that’s something the commission could have done today.”
Dr. Mary Lynn Bryan, acting chair of the committee with the absence of regular chair Millie M. Barbee, said the delay was necessary so that the commission can make an informed decision.
Under a 2015 state law, the commission must approve any removal or relocation of “objects of remembrance” on state property. The law, which commission members described as frustratingly vague, states that state-owned monuments and works of art may only be relocated in order to preserve them, for reasons of public safety or due to construction. The law, which critics say acts to protect Confederate monuments by making the process of their removal unnecessarily difficult, also says that the statues must be moved to places of similar prominence.
In the wake of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA centered around a Robert E. Lee statue and the toppling of a similar statue outside a courthouse in Durham earlier this summer, Gov. Roy Cooper formally requested three state owned Confederate monuments be relocated from downtown Raleigh. The request asked that the three monuments – an 1895 Confederate Monument, the Henry Lawson Monument and the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy Monument – be moved to the Bentonville Battlefield site in Johnson County.
The delay disappointed advocates for removal of the monuments, about two dozen of whom protested outside Friday’s meeting in downtown Raleigh.
“It’s just cowardly,” said Heather Redding of Orange County. “I would like to see them take public comments, but not if it delays a decision on this.”
Redding said she believes all such statues should be removed – and that public sentiment to that effect will not be quelled by delaying a decision.
“I think it’s going to build up the tension but it’s also going to build momentum for removing these monuments,” Redding said.
Qasima Wideman, a N.C. State student, agreed.
“I think they’re afraid of the peoples’ power and the strength of our organization,” said Wideman, 21. “We don’t need their permission to remove symbols of white supremacy from our community.”
But several members of the commission who support the monuments’ removal also said a delay was a good idea.
“I think this gives us a chance to get more public input and more clarification on this process, which is not clear and which we’re dealing with for the first time,” said Dr. Valerie Johnson, a member of the commission.
Johnson is the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Africana Women’s Studies at Greensboro’s Bennett College and chair of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. Along with Dennard, Johnson is also one of only two Black members of the commission.
The commission added Johnson, in her role with the African American Heritage Commission, to the committee that will study the issue before April.
Johnson, who is on record as supporting removal of the monuments, said a better decision will be reached if it is not rushed in the heat of political debate without all of the facts and sufficient input from the public and legal experts.
“We respect history, but it’s not static,” Johnson said. “We need to recognize it’s not static and making it living for all North Carolinians.”
Republican lawmakers made clear this week that they will oppose movement of the monuments due to opposition from the public and possible vandalism, offering their own interpretation of the law to commission members in a memo.
Two dozen N.C. House Republicans fired off the memo to commissioners Thursday. The memo, to which House Speaker Tim Moore signed on, said the provision allowing for movement of the monuments was intended only to protect them from things like harsh weather or construction that might damage them.
“This provision in no way applies to the relocation of an object of remembrance to reduce its potential for exposure to protest or criminal activity,” the memo said. “Any such interpretation of the statute or variant thereof is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the law.”
They also objected to the movement of the monuments to the Bentonville site as not a site of “similar prominence,” though the law does not specify what that means or who is empowered to make that determination.
N.C. President Pro Tempore Phil Berger penned a separate letter to Cooper, asking that the governor withdraw his request to the commission altogether and calling it “insincere.”