While the town’s removal of a granite marker from the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery this week might have violated state law, a UNC professor says, there’s not much that can be done about it now.
The town, meanwhile, is moving ahead with plans for a community conversation. No details have been released yet.
The marker was installed Feb. 4 without ceremony or public notice. The town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board paid $1,875 for the marker in December after retired judge Stanley Peele sought to honor “persons of color” – slaves and freemen – buried there. Most of the graves lack markers.
A 2015 state law protecting historic monuments allows “an object of remembrance” to be relocated temporarily if a state or local government needs to take steps to preserve the object, or if it is blocking construction or renovation of buildings, open spaces, parking and transportation projects.
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But the law also says new public markers can’t be erected or removed from public property without state approval, said Al Brophy, a UNC professor specializing in property law. “State” in this case, he said, could refer to local and county governments, because they derive their powers from the state. Otherwise, the law wouldn’t protect Confederate monuments that have been erected on county property, he said.
But what’s messy, he said, is how to enforce the law, especially since the town owns the land and the marker.
“It’s an odd moment where there is a public right there, but the people who can enforce it have no interest in enforcing it,” he said.
Town Manager Roger Stancil said he and Mayor Pam Hemminger didn’t consider the law when they decided to remove the marker. Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said he was not consulted; Stancil said he doesn’t think the law applies.
“Seeing as how this wasn’t dedicated, there wasn’t a ceremony, it was delivered there from the maker and placed there,” he said. “So we actually just removed it from there before it’s actually yet installed and celebrated and dedicated.”
Town Council member Maria Palmer, who sits on the cemeteries board, apologized this week to board members and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP for forgetting to contact the NAACP about a dedication ceremony. She said she didn’t intend for the marker to be removed when she asked town staff to look into the issue Feb. 22 in an attempt to commemorate the cemetery’s history and hold a dedication.
While many famous residents are buried in the cemetery’s nearly 1,700 graves, ground-penetrating radar in recent years found 475 more, unmarked graves; 361 of those are in two sections set aside for slaves and free people of color.
Peele, 83, said the marker could honor and remember the cemetery’s unnamed dead and give those who protest Silent Sam and other UNC landmarks something positive to rally around.
But the inscription – “Here rest in honored glory 361 American persons of color known but to God” – and the way the marker was approved and installed has raised questions and criticism from UNC students, faculty, NAACP members and local preservationists, Hemminger said.
“People don’t understand that that graveyard actually belongs to the town and not the university,” she said, “so some students got pretty distressed about the verbiage and the NAACP got pretty distressed about the verbiage and the Historic Preservation Society and some other groups of citizens were starting to (ask) how come there wasn’t a process to decide what happens here. Being new, I didn’t know we hadn’t gone through a process.”
UNC’s Black Student Movement president and local and state NAACP officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Steve Moore, cemeteries board chairman, said the work could have been stopped at any time. It followed existing, public processes, he said, and they kept the cost low so it could be paid for with cemeteries money. Moore also invited the mayor and council to attend the installation.
‘Persons of color’
One critic, Cheri Szcodronski, executive director of Preservation Chapel Hill, said the marker needs to be revised, because the phrase “persons of color” is antiquated and the marker only honors some people buried in the unmarked graves. Over 100 poor whites also may be buried there, she said.
Szcodronski sits on the cemeteries board but hasn’t attended meetings for months. She learned about the installation from the newspaper, she said.
“When I went over and looked at it, I didn’t feel like it fit the landscape very well for a National Register-listed cemetery,” she said. “I thought it kind of stuck out, and I was disappointed to see they used the Jim Crow-era language and they had still only included a portion of the unknown burials.”
Szcodronski said she’s been asked to help with the community conversation about a revised marker. Until then, the marker’s being stored in a Public Works building across town, officials said.
A turn of phrase
The phrase “persons of color” appears throughout history since at least the 1700s, when it described mixed-race people living in Haiti and Louisiana.
It grew from there to describe slaves, free blacks and mixed-race people, appearing locally in the North Carolina Slave Code of 1715, news reports, slave notices and a legal compilation – “Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color” – published in 1855.
A language shift, by the 1866 Freedmen’s Convention in Raleigh, ushered in the phrase “colored people.” But “persons of color” was not forgotten, appearing in civil rights speeches and writings, including the works of W.E.B. Du Bois. Martin Luther King Jr. made reference to the phrase in 1963 when he said America had defaulted on its obligations to “citizens of color.”
While the phrase continued to be used, it did not become part of the common lexicon until the 1980s and 1990s.
Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, said he had heard little about the cemetery marker and it critics, but he and others, particularly in progressive movements, commonly use the phrase. It’s also widely accepted among people in the world’s Southern Hemisphere as representative of the understanding that they suffer from some of the same problems, he said.
Where issues can arise, Jordan said, is when the phrase is only viewed through local perspectives and experiences.
“It’s not an antiquated term,” Jordan said. “In fact, it is a very common and, at least as far as I’m concerned, an affirming term when it comes to placing African-American struggles in the context of the rest of the world.”