Tossed into the laps of an obscure government commission is one of the most contentious political and cultural issues of the year: what to do with towering monuments to the Confederacy sitting on state property.
On Friday, the N.C. Historical Commission is set to consider a petition from Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration to move three Confederate monuments from the Capitol grounds in Raleigh to the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site in Johnston County near Four Oaks. The 1865 Battle of Bentonville was the largest Civil War battle in the state.
A 2015 law requires Historical Commission approval for moving the monuments, and how commission members interpret the law will be key.
Bill Ivey, one of the commission members, said the law does not allow the commission to approve the request.
“We don’t have the authority to move it unless we are shown a reason,” said Ivey, an antiques dealer from Asheboro. “It needs to be done for reason of preservation. That reason has not been shown.”
Cooper first proposed moving state monuments in August, after the violent white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville and the toppling of a Confederate statue outside the former Durham County courthouse. The Charlottesville rally triggered removal of statutes and efforts to remove them in cities around the country.
The Democratic governor said then that Confederate monuments on state property should be moved to places where they can be studied in context.
The N.C. Historical Commission has 11 voting members, all governor’s appointees. Cooper appointed three members and reappointed one member who’s been on the commission since 2005.
Efforts to reach most members this week were unsuccessful. Three others were not willing to talk about their thoughts on the administration’s petition.
“I’m not getting into all that,” said Commission Chairwoman Millie M. Barbee of Ashe County.
The petition came from the N.C. Department of Administration. The Historical Commission operates under the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Both have leaders appointed by Cooper.
Debate over the request to move the 1895 Confederate Monument, the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy statue and the Henry Lawson Wyatt monument, which depicts the first Confederate soldier killed in battle, may focus on two areas: how the moves would change the character of a historic district and on the 2015 law itself.
▪ The law has been described as vague.
“The statute is a bit confusing,” said Gerry Cohen, a lobbyist who for years ran the legislative office that drafted legislation. Cohen did not help draft this law.
One section of the law says that the Historical Commission must approve removing, relocating or altering a monument. Later, it describes reasons relocation can be approved – for preservation, or to allow for construction, renovation or reconfiguration of buildings, open spaces, parking or transportation projects.
It’s unclear whether the second sentence giving reasons for relocation are additional requirements or alternatives, Cohen said.
“The statute is confusing because it has that extra sentence,” he said. “It appears to have been added on later. Syntactically, it doesn’t fit in to the rest of it. It’s like an additional idea thrown in.”
Senate leader Phil Berger’s office said in an email that the law “speaks for itself.”
His office included in the email a copy of the law with most of the sentences about “limitations on removal” highlighted, along with two Cooper statements over the last month, and excerpts of previous statements from Berger or his spokeswoman.
One of the highlighted portions of the law says relocated monuments must go to sites of “similar prominence, honor, visibility and availability.” The quotes from Cooper say the monuments should not be in a place of “honor” or “allegiance” at the state Capitol.
“I don’t believe that they should be in a place of honor like our state Capitol,” Cooper told the N.C. Insider earlier this month.
“Moving them to Bentonville Battlefield where they can be studied in their historical context is the way to go with this,” he said. “I believe that that petition does comply with the law. We’ll see what the Historical Commission says about it.”
Ivey, the commission member from Asheboro, said the law is clear to him.
“None are to be moved, period,” except for construction or preservation, he said. “Well, they’ve been preserved for over 100 years where they’re located. There’s nothing been shown to show they’re not going to continue to be preserved.”
Cooper made the proposal for political reasons, Ivey said. “I think we as members of the commission need to put on our historian hat and forget the politics of the thing.”
▪ Moving the monuments would have an “adverse impact” on the Capitol historic site, a state official determined.
The proposal to move the monuments required a determination whether it would adversely affect the property, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In a Sept. 12 memo to Historical Commission members, Kevin Cherry, the state historic preservation officer, concluded that moving the monuments would have an adverse effect on the historic district.
“However,” Cherry wrote, “their relocation will not change the overall, continuing commemorative nature of the State Capitol grounds, where the official sentiments of the State are expressed, and if properly located and contextualized, will allow the monuments in question to memorialize the hardship, sacrifice and call to duty of those who served in the great national tragedy of 1861 to 1865 while at the same time commemorating the reunification and reconciliation of the nation.”
N.C. Historical Commission members
Valerie Ann Johnson of Oxford
David Dennard of Greenville
W. Noah Reynolds of Winston-Salem
David Ruffin of Raleigh
Barbara Blythe Snowden of Currituck
Mary Lynn M. Bryan of Fayetteville
Margaret Kluttz of Salisbury
Chris Fonvielle Jr. of Wrightsville Beach
Millie M. Barbee of Ashe County
Samuel Bobbitt Dixon of Edenton
Bill Ivey of Asheboro