Will Hinton has brought a half-dozen public art projects to life in his beloved town of Louisburg, with the help of funding and physical labor from the town and his students at Louisburg College, where he's a one-man art department.
But his current proposal — to relocate a Confederate monument from the middle of the road on the highest hill of Main Street in town — has brought claims that this time, Hinton isn’t trying to add something significant, but erase it.
“You know me,” Hinton assured members of the town council at a March meeting when he tried to explain what he had in mind. They know his bearded face, his beat-up green pickup truck, his house on Sunset Avenue near the historic downtown. Many of them know that while he grew up in Gates County, his grandmother and mother were born in Louisburg and he has deep roots here; his great-great-grandfather donated the land that is now the town-owned Oakwood Cemetery — the cemetery that holds many of the town's Confederate dead and where he would like to see the Confederate statue re-installed.
At 61, Hinton has spent more than half his life teaching drawing and ceramic arts at the historic college, where his students have included his neighbors’ children.
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They know him.
And yet, some of the town’s 3,600 residents have turned their backs to him in the aisles of the Food Lion after hearing that he proposed — in a guest sermon first delivered last October to the three or four dozen parishioners of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in town — that maybe it’s time for Louisburg to consider moving its bronze likeness of a Confederate soldier striding atop a tall granite plinth in the center of North Main Street.
The monument has stood there since 1914, when it was erected with at least $3,500 contributed to the United Daughters of the Confederacy five decades after the Civil War. It’s one of more than 700 Confederate monuments across the U.S. and about 90 in North Carolina, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many were factory produced and sold from the late 1800s to around 1920, when states were enacting Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black Americans and canceled the social and political gains they had made.
The News & Observer covered the monument’s dedication, attended by some 5,000 people including Gov. Locke Craig, who gave the keynote address. There was a parade with elaborate floats evoking images of war and sacrifice. They honored the young men of Franklin County who had volunteered or been conscripted to the 47th and 15th North Carolina infantry regiments and other units of the Confederate Army and then died of illness or injury.
It was installed on a small grassy island in the middle of the road, with the soldier facing south, toward town.
When the monument was built, Louisburg College, a Methodist-affiliated school that's one of the oldest junior colleges in the country, did not allow black students to attend. The school occupied just one side of the road then, but it has expanded — and diversified. Today, about 70 percent of the school's 700 students are black, and as they travel between buildings, they cross back and forth over North Main Street beneath the soldier’s feet.
In the past, some of them may never have noticed the inscriptions on the granite base or realized that the soldier, now green with exposure to the elements, represented the Boys in Gray.
“They know now,” said Hinton, because Confederate monuments have become symbols for some of a lingering and increasing racial divide in the U.S. Statues in Charlottesville, Va., and in Durham and Chapel Hill have become the centers of controversy.
'You're not from here'
At the same time Hinton was crafting his sermon and proposing moving the statue from the middle of Main Street to a contemplative garden that could be built around it at Oakwood Cemetery, some of his colleagues at the college were using the statue in their classrooms.
Kelvin Spragley, chair of the school's business and social science section, and Tammy Evans, English instructor and interim director of the college's writing center, each had their students do original and historical research about the monument and write about it.
After the Franklin Times, the local newspaper, ran an op-ed by Hinton on the subject, the paper published several batches of letters the students crafted to say whether they thought the statue should stay or be moved.
“It’s a unique opportunity for these students,” Evans said, because it allowed them to think critically and locally about a national issue.
Equally valuable, Spragley said, “Is the chance for young people to be heard,” and especially the young people at this college, nearly all of whom qualify for federal financial aid grants to help them get through school.
Karl Pernell, who has lived in Louisburg all of his 82 years and has served as mayor for more than 16, said he suspected that the students felt pressured to write that the statue should be moved.
At any rate, he said, as an elected representative of the people of Louisburg — the ones who live and vote here — he is less interested in the concerns of students who will be in town for two years at the most.
“You have a right to express your opinion, but you’re not from here,” is how he feels about it, Pernell said. “I can understand what they’re saying, and if they were permanent residents here, I would pay more attention.
“It’s history, so to speak, and how are you going to have history if you don’t leave it the way it is? It’s not bothering anybody.”
In a letter she wrote to the editor, Evans asked how it was possible for the monument to be both a mundane object with no ability to offend, and at the same time a meaningful historical artifact that must be kept in a place of public prominence.
“How can it be both benign and influential?” she asked.
Even if there were consensus on whether it could be moved and an American flag or something else put in its place, there are other hurdles. It’s not clear whether the town owns the statue, or whether it belongs to the county or to the quiet but still active Joseph J. Davis 537 chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Efforts to reach the United Daughters of the Confederacy were unsuccessful.
Cost is another consideration, but the biggest obstacle would be a 2015 state law prohibiting Confederate monuments being moved from public property anywhere in the state except under special circumstances.
For now, said Louisburg Town Council member Emma Ruth Stewart, Hinton, his colleagues and some of their students are the only ones picturing that monument anywhere other than where it has sat for 104 years.
“I think the majority feeling of people is that they want it to stay where it is,” she said. “Will does love Louisburg, I’ll grant you that. I think he just has a hard time accepting that everyone does not share the same vision he has.”