NC Appeals Court rules for Town of Louisburg in removal of Confederate monument

By: - August 16, 2023 5:55 am
the Louisburg Confederate monument in the town's Oakwood Cemetary

The confederate monument as it stood at the Oakwood Cemetery in Louisburg in 2022. (Photo by Rusty Long via DocSouth)

The North Carolina Court of Appeals sided with the Town of Louisburg Tuesday in a lawsuit over the its removal of a Confederate monument.

The court found local residents, who had sued the town, did not have legal standing and were unable to establish their “proprietary or contractual interest in the monument” or “a legally protected interest invaded by defendants’ conduct.”

Louisburg is in Franklin County, about 30 miles northeast of Raleigh.

An unanswered question in the Louisburg case, like many of the failed lawsuits filed over the removal of Confederate monuments in North Carolina, is that of ownership of the statue itself.

“They offer various and conflicting positions about who owns the Monument,” the appeals court’s majority opinion reads, regarding the plaintiffs. “Whether it be Franklin County, a specific County commissioner, the town of Louisburg, or the Daughters of the Confederacy. … Each plaintiff … denies they have an ownership interest in the Monument or admits they do not own the Monument.”

Three years ago, the Louisburg Town Council voted to remove the statue from its position on North Main Street, where it had stood since 1914. The town placed the statue in storage, later moving it to Louisburg’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Public controversy over such monuments had led to several being pulled down across the state and nation, the Louisburg police chief said it constituted a public safety emergency.

The plaintiffs in the Louisburg lawsuit failed to make the case the town acted improperly in removing the monument, the appeals court found.

The same month Louisburg voted to remove that town’s statue, protesters pulled down two bronze soldier statues from the 75-foot North Carolina Confederate monument at the State Capitol in downtown Raleigh. Amid safety concerns, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the remainder of the monument dismantled and removed. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

The same month the Louisburg Town Council voted to remove that town’s statue, protesters pulled down two bronze soldier statues from the 75-foot North Carolina Confederate monument at the State Capitol in downtown Raleigh, hanging one by its neck from a streetlight. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the remainder of the monument dismantled and removed for public safety, along with the Henry Lewis Wyatt and North Carolina Women of the Confederacy monuments, the two other Confederate statues on the Capitol grounds.

Cooper’s decision was prompted in part by weeks of international protests against police violence and systemic racism sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The movement led to renewed momentum for removing the names and images celebrating the Confederacy and white supremacist figures from public spaces, and dozens of changes in the names of buildings, streets and structures across North Carolina.

Earlier this year, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found North Carolina was among the states that removed the most Confederate monuments in 2022. But just seven such monuments were removed and 173 remained.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s regularly updated, interactive map of Confederate monuments and symbols (Image courtesy of SPLC)

Newsline has reported extensively on the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, from the failed legal deal over the “Silent Sam” statue toppled on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus in 2018 to local government seeking to remove statues in their community in the face of a 2015 monuments law that made that much more difficult.

The relevant section of that statute reads: “A monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State may not be removed, relocated, or altered in any way without the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission.”

The law further states:

“An object of remembrance located on public property may not be permanently removed and may only be relocated, whether temporarily or permanently, under the circumstances listed in this subsection and subject to the limitations in this subsection. An object of remembrance that is temporarily relocated shall be returned to its original location within 90 days of completion of the project that required its temporary removal. An object of remembrance that is permanently relocated shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability, and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated. An object of remembrance may not be relocated to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location.”

But critics of the law believe that subsection leaves an opening for at least temporary removal or relocation; Gov. Cooper and various local governments have cited that subsection in removing various monuments since 2020.

The relevant portion reads in part,

“The circumstances under which an object of remembrance may be relocated are either of the following:

(1)        When appropriate measures are required by the State or a political subdivision of the State to preserve the object.

(2)        An object of remembrance owned by a private party that is located on public property and that is 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.

(3)        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.”

Dr. Karen Cox (Image: Courtesy of UNC-Charlotte)

The Louisburg statue was, like many such monuments across the country, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but during a rising tide of white supremacist sentiment in the South in the early 20th century.

Karen Cox, historian and expert on Confederate monuments, told NC Newsline in 2018 that the effort was driven by a desire to rewrite the history of American slavery and the Civil War.

“It was about vindication,” Cox said of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s campaign. “The work that they did was about vindicating their ancestors. 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.”

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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.