A state commission recommended Wednesday that three Confederate monuments stay on the state Capitol grounds.
The North Carolina Historical Commission wants more information added around the statues about the Civil War and the struggle to overcome slavery. It’s also recommending new statues on the Capitol grounds recognizing contributions from African-Americans.
The recommendations, in response to a request by Gov. Roy Cooper, come just days after demonstrators toppled Silent Sam, the Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill. The statue fell after years of controversy, protests and appeals to university officials to take it down.
The statues in Raleigh have been vandalized a few times in recent years, according to a record compiled by a state official for the Historical Commission. But the Raleigh monuments have not been the target of persistent, organized protests.
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The Historical Commission adopted recommendations made earlier Wednesday by a commission task force. Five members of the task force who studied Cooper’s request agreed the Capitol grounds have an “over-representation and over-memorialization of a difficult era” in state history.
The task force split 3-2 on moving the statues. Two members wanted them relocated, but three members said the commission does not have the legal authority to move the monuments, and the full commission later agreed on a 9-2 vote.
“Memorials to white supremacy should not continue to be on our public grounds,” said Valerie Johnson, a professor at Bennett College in Greensboro.
Another resolution called for signs next to the Confederate monuments to provide “balanced context” about the historical period, “the struggle to overcome the consequences of slavery that caused the Civil War, and the subjugation of African American people.” It included a recommendation to add one or more monuments to the Capitol grounds to “memorialize the accomplishments and contributions” of African-Americans in the state.
The resolution calls for the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to plan, design, and raise money for the construction of African-American monuments for the Capitol grounds. Cooper and the legislature should work together to ensure the monuments are constructed, the resolution said.
Johnson voted against the resolution. She said before the vote that Native Americans and women should be included.
During a break in discussion Wednesday, Ashley Popio stood up and shouted that the statues should come down. Police took her away.
Gabrielle Middlebrooks of Wake County attended the commission meeting and said in an interview after the task force votes that she wanted the statues removed. She said the commission members’ statements about slavery as the cause of the Civil War and the need to put the monuments in context were not enough.
“It’s 2018. Are we really going to give out cookies for denouncing treating people as property?” she asked. “My family had members, had members of our family, who were living in this state as property. I think it’s a bare minimum, on-the-floor standard to say that other human beings shouldn’t be able to be sold like cattle.”
Frank Powell, spokesman for the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the group was pleased with the recommendation to keep the statues in place.
“I think it’s probably the best outcome we could have hoped for under the circumstances,” he said.
The group supports having more statues on the Capitol grounds, as the commission suggested, Powell said. But it may object to plaques placed around Confederate monuments, depending on what information they include.
Cooper more than a year ago announced he wanted to relocate three Confederate monuments. The Democratic governor’s announcement came after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the toppling of a Confederate statue outside the old courthouse in Durham.
Shortly after, his administration asked the Historical Commission to move the three monuments to Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County, the site of a major Civil War battle, where they could be studied in context.
A 2015 law to protect monuments makes it difficult to move any statues that sit on public property. Statues can be relocated only to preserve them or get them out of the way of new construction, and they must be moved to sites as prominent as their old locations.
The Cooper administration wanted to move the 1895 Confederate monument, the Henry Lawson Wyatt monument, which depicts the first Confederate soldier to die in battle, and the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy monument, The News & Observer has reported.
House Republicans warned the commission that it did not have the authority to move the statues. Senate leader Phil Berger told Cooper that the commission would lose a lawsuit if it decided to move the statues. Berger praised the commission’s recommendations in a written statement, and said he supported adding an African-American monument.
“I appreciate that this committee followed the law and listened to the overwhelming majority of public comments from North Carolinians saying monuments on the state Capitol Grounds are part of our state’s history and should remain where they are,” Berger’s statement said. “I also agree with the committee that there’s more of the story that should be told, and that men and women shamefully held in bondage for generations helped build our state, and that deserves a monument.
“I support the committee’s recommendations and pledge to work with my colleagues to implement them,” Berger continued. “The thoughtful and deliberative process stands in stark contrast to the mob rule from earlier this week. When people with different perspectives come together in good faith, we can solve problems.”
In a prepared statement, Cooper said people who want the statues moved should ask their legislators to change the law or vote for people who will.
“It is time for North Carolina to realize that we can document and learn from our history without idolizing painful symbols,” Cooper said in the written statement. “The General Assembly needs to change its 2015 law so our state and its people have a better path to remove or relocate these monuments safely, and I urge those who object to the monuments to call on their legislators to change the law and support legislative candidates who want to move our state forward.
“The actions that toppled Silent Sam bear witness to the strong feelings many North Carolinians have about Confederate monuments,” Cooper’s statement continued. “I don’t agree with or condone the way that monument came down, but protesters concluded that their leaders would not — could not — act on the frustration and pain it caused. I acknowledge, too, those who believe these monuments should stay as they are because they symbolize our history. But they are just one part of our history. North Carolina is welcoming to all, and our most prominent public places should reflect that.”
A task force of Historical Commission members held a public hearing, collected nearly 10,000 public comments, and asked for legal opinions and advice from historians as it worked to make recommendations to the full commission.
Bonner: 919-829-4821; @Lynn_Bonner