Historical Commission members to grapple with Confederate monuments issue next week

By: - January 17, 2018 5:00 am

Back in September, the N.C. Historical Commission put off a decision on removing three Confederate monuments from the State Capitol grounds. Instead, the commission formed a task force to study the politically fraught issue, which the North Carolina General Assembly dropped into their laps with a 2015 law that makes it more difficult to remove such statues.

Next Monday at 3 p.m., that task force – the Confederate Monuments Study Committee – will have its first meeting via teleconference. The public can listen in via a livestream on the YouTube site of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

With the issue of Confederate monuments such as “Silent Sam” on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill still a controversial one, the group’s work could have wide-ranging implications.

David Ruffin, chairman of the Historical Commission, says that the issue is still a sensitive one and the group will have to reach some consensus.

Along with Ruffin, the other members of the committee are:

  • Chris Fonvielle, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
  • Valerie Johnson, 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.
  • Noah Reynolds, a real estate investor and entrepreneur and trustee of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
  • Sam Dixon, an attorney and preservation advocate from Edenton.

While the committee’s ultimate recommendation remains to be seen, several members have spoken publicly on the larger issue of Confederate monuments and their proper place in the state today.

In a summer interview with Policy Watch, Johnson said these statues should come down as quickly as possible.

Dr. Valerie Johnson

“As a scholar and an anthropologist by training, I can’t help when looking at these statues but be reminded that these are statues memorializing oppression and suppression,” Johnson said. “They were erected when Jim and Jane Crow were ramping up, to remind people of the superiority of whites. And at UNC, ‘Silent Sam’ is at one of the most prominent possible places on campus, so that African American students and faculty have to pass it and be reminded of that.”

In an interview Tuesday, Johnson said she still feels that way. So do a growing number of North Carolinians in the wake of white supremacist violence at the University of Virginia that centered around a Confederate monument. In the past few months, communities and schools from Duke to the University of Texas have removed public Confederate monuments.

In a September interview with Policy Watch Ruffin, a banker by trade, also said he believes it’s time for the statues to come down.

“Charlottesville was so toxic, it really changed my mind about some of these things,” Ruffin said. “History and politics aren’t my profession – in fact, getting into some of this can be harmful in my profession. But you do know what is right and wrong. In this case, this is a runaway train. There’s no choice. You have to pick your battles – but in this case, you have to take a stand.”

Fonvielle, for his part, told Policy Watch that he is against the removal of the statues.

“As a historian, I can tell you that I am opposed to the removal of the statues, which I think would be denying opportunities for teaching and learning about the South’s complex, troubled, and sometimes dark past,” Fonvielle said in an interview this week. “That said; we should provide greater historical and cultural context to them in the form of markers or plaques.”

“I am also very much in favor of being more inclusive, by erecting statues to African American freedom fighters from the Civil War era, whose voices have remained silent (or kept silent) for more than 150 years,” Fonvielle said.

Republican state lawmakers have also made it clear where they stand on the issue. Two dozen North Carolina House Republicans fired off the memo to commissioners before their last meeting.

The memo, to which House Speaker Tim Moore signed on, said the provision in the 2015 law allowing for movement of the monuments was intended only to protect them from things like harsh weather or construction that might damage them. Public protests – even ones that might lead to the statues being pulled down as a Confederate monument was in Durham over the summer – were not to be considered.

“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.”

The legislators also objected to the idea of moving the monuments to the Bentonville Battlefield Civil War landmark on the grounds that it would not be a site of “similar prominence.” The 2015 law purports to require such a landing spot for any monuments that are moved but it does not specify what that means or who is empowered to make that determination.

State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger penned a separate letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, asking him to withdraw his request that the commission take up the issue at all and calling it “insincere.”

Part of the frustration of commission members is that the 2015 law governing the statues is so vaguely written that they aren’t themselves sure how to proceed, though the statute makes them the arbiters of the issue.

“We’re going to have to address this in a definitive and serious way,” Johnson said this week. “So that a policy is set forth and so that there is something people can look to to say, ‘This is how we should proceed.’”

“Our duty, I think, is to come up with a clear process,” Johnson said. “Going back and forth is not going to resolve the issue and we can’t pass it along anymore.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.