Chatham County commissioners want more information before they decide whether to move a Confederate statue outside the historic courthouse in the center of Pittsboro.
Scores of residents spoke during Monday’s county board meeting. More spoke in favor of removing the statue, but their passion was met by nearly as many who want to see the statue remain in place.
The discussion led commissioners to seek additional input from county staff, including County Attorney Richard “Jep” Rose.
The commissioners voted 4-1 along party lines to investigate their ability to remove the statue from the courthouse grounds.
Commissioner Walter Petty, the board’s lone Republican, opposed the motion. Petty also made a bit of news at the beginning of the meeting by announcing that he will resign from the board at the end of April.
“I think it is pretty evident that this is not a win-win situation for anybody,” Petty said. “We have to acknowledge the fact that everyone is not going to be happy. Removing it or leaving it is not going to solve the problem we’re facing until we can really define the purpose of the statue.”
What they said
The group Chatham for All opened the conversation with comments from Howard Fifer. Commissioners had given the group a slot on the agenda for an informational presentation about the the origin and symbolism of the Confederate statue.
The group believes the county can return the statue to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which presented it to the county in 1907 during the height of the Jim Crow era. But state legislation passed in 2015 by the the Republican-controlled General Assembly restricts local governments from moving statues except under limited conditions.
A few statue supporters grumbled in the back of the room when Fifer’s comments lasted longer than three minutes. They thought the same time limits for the public comment period would be enforced during the agenda-item discussion.
It took Petty’s intervention and explanation of the meeting’s rules to quiet the crowd.
After the Chatham for All speakers wrapped up, the board opened the public comment portion of the meeting.
More than 60 people signed up. They each got three minutes to speak their minds about the statue.
Some people said the statue honors the dead Confederate soldiers from Chatham County. Others said the statue represented white supremacy and no longer deserved to stand on the courthouse grounds because justice was supposed to protect all citizens equally.
Robin Whittington, a statue supporter, said she felt like the board’s decision was already made.
“It’s difficult to come up here when I think you’ve already made up your minds,” she said. “But I’m going to have my say.”
Larry Brooks of the West Chatham NAACP said it was his hope that the board would decide to have the statue removed.
Vaughn Upshaw wants to see the statue removed.
“Our job now is for us to say ‘No, more,’” she said.
Scott Gilmore said the statue should remain where it is.
“What I see here is a damn disgrace,” he said. “We have to learn to be with each other. I’m calling it heritage, not hate. We can’t change the past. Most of the people who are raising hell are white.”
Commissioner Karen Howard, the board’s only African American member, said she was disappointed by the division created by the statue. She said she could tell if speakers wanted to see the statue removed or remain by whether or not they made eye contact with her as they spoke.
“That was disheartening,” she said. “But it was reinforced over and over multiple times in the language that was used. I was very sad to hear some of the comments, it sounded as though people weren’t in the room when the presentation was done.”
The commissioners moved their meeting to the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center in anticipation of a larger-than-normal crowd.
Commissioner meetings typically draw fewer than 100 people to the historic courthouse chambers. More than 500 people attended the meeting at the Ag Center, which can seatnearly 700 people.
“I’m glad we were able to accommodate, I think everyone,” Chairman Mike Dasher said. “I’m not aware that anybody was turned away. But I don’t know that any minds were changed, either.”
Before the meeting, about 25 statue supporters gathered near the statue before they headed to the Ag Center.
Sheriff Mike Roberson had again ordered barricades erected around the statue and the front entrance of the courthouse, matching his response last month when a protest was rumored before to the commissioners’ meeting.