State officials will kick off a month-long series of community meetings across the state on Tuesday to gather feedback from residents about a proposed monument on the State Capitol grounds to commemorate the achievements of African-Americans in North Carolina.
Gov. Pat McCrory recommended in late October that the N.C. Historical Commission endorse the idea of a new monument on the Capitol grounds. The plan, supported by members of the historical commission and the N.C. African American Heritage Commission, would end a 25-year moratorium on the construction of statues on the State Capitol grounds.
“I can’t think of a more appropriate way to recognize the contributions of African Americans to North Carolina’s history than a monument at the State Capitol,” McCrory said in a press release announcing the meetings last week.
The governor’s recommendation for a monument was inspired in part by a desire to recognize African-Americans in the wake of last June’s church massacre in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine people, including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, during a prayer service. After McCrory pushed the idea, a study committee made up of several area university historians and members of the state historical commission agreed that the moratorium on monuments should be lifted “for this express purpose.”
The public hearings next month will take place over four Tuesdays in Greensboro, Charlotte, Rocky Mount and Fayetteville. Members of the historical commission will describe possible locations, materials and themes for the monument, then listen to what people think about it.
McCrory and officials with the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources say the new monument would not cancel out the planning and construction of the Freedom Monument Park that’s been in the works since 2002, when the Paul Green Foundation held a series of public discussions with the aim of establishing a monument to reflect the African-American experience in the state. In 2006, the Freedom Monument Park committee identified a proposed site at Wilmington and Lane streets, just east of the Legislative Building, and money was allocated for it in the state budget. But the recession halted those plans and the project sputtered.
The governor’s office says the new memorial would complement the Freedom Monument Park.
David Warren, a professor emeritus at Duke University and co-chair of the Freedom Monument Park, said it is still very much a work in progress. He said the Freedom Monument is included in McCrory’s proposal to revitalize the State Government Complex.
“We’ve been working behind the scenes,” Warren said.
Warren said the Freedom Project’s members are using a $35,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to “take a look at the project’s entire design” and “how to approach major donors.” He said recent developments, like the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland that opened in 2013, have created an “opportunity for us to make our project even more significant.”
Michael Hill, the chief historian with the N.C. Historical Commission, said efforts to construct monuments recognizing the contributions of African-Americans, Native Americans and women in North Carolina predates McCrory’s tenure as governor. In 2009, Hill said, Eddie Davis, a Durham city councilman and former president of the N.C. Association of Educators, proposed that the state install in the rotunda of the State Capitol a set of plaques commemorating the expansion of rights for African-Americans and women through the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and extended citizenship to blacks, along with voting rights for the former slaves and women.
That same year, Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the state’s first African-American woman to serve as a state Supreme Court justice, looked out of her office window and noted that there were no monuments that promoted inclusiveness and were representative of all North Carolinians.
In 2010, the historical commission held a series of meetings across the state fielding input from residents on what a monument dedicated to African-Americans should look like and where it should be located on the Capitol grounds. One proposed location that gained traction is the southeast corner of the Capitol grounds in front of the historically black First Baptist Church, Hill said.
But the project was scuttled by the recession and lack of political will, Hill said. That changed last year.
“The shootings in Charleston revived the discussion,” he said.
Among the designs suggested is a memorial that would honor George Henry White, an Edgecombe County legislator who left office in 1901, a year after the General Assembly passed legislation that denied most black North Carolinians the right to vote. The memorial would be shared with Ella Baker, a native of Littleton and graduate of Shaw University, who organized in 1960 a meeting on Shaw’s campus that gave rise to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“They were like bookends,” Hill said. “They signaled the beginning and end of Jim Crow.”
▪ March 1: International Civil Rights Center and Museum, 134 S. Elm St., Greensboro
▪ March 8: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Culture, 551 S. Tryon St., Charlotte
▪ March 22: Braswell Memorial Library, 727 N. Grace St., Rocky Mount
▪ March 29: Shaw Auditorium at Fayetteville State University, 1200 Murchison Road, Fayetteville
Those wishing to voice opinions can contact Deputy Secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources Kevin Cherry at 919-807-7280 or at 4610 MSC, Raleigh, N.C. 27699-4610.