Confederate statue has literally divided NC town’s Main Street for years. But no more.
The monument that has towered over Main Street in the Franklin County town of Louisburg for 106 years will be moved to the municipal cemetery and placed among the graves of the Confederate soldiers it memorializes, following an emergency Monday night vote by the town council.
The relocation plan is a compromise between those who want all Confederate statuary removed from public spaces and those who say the monuments are history worth preserving.
In the monument’s manicured place — a tiny island in the middle of the street — United States and North Carolina flags will be raised and a new memorial likely will be installed that honors all local residents who died in any U.S. war.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘I never felt like it would be in lifetime,’” said Louisburg Town Council member Betty Wright, an African American woman and a lifelong resident. “But I knew it was coming down. It had to come down. Because it brings up too much.”
Wright joined the council’s emergency Zoom meeting called after protesters ripped down two of the figures of the Confederate monument on the State Capitol grounds in Raleigh over the weekend, prompting Gov. Roy Cooper to order the removal of the rest of the monument. Anti-racist protests began after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who was arrested by police and held on the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes despite pleading for breath.
Protesters who have gathered at the monument in Louisburg have not damaged the statue, but Wright said she and others believed they eventually would.
‘It was a matter of time’
“It was a matter of time,” said Louisburg attorney Boyd Sturges, Wright’s colleague on the town board and seemingly the least likely member to make the motion, as he did, to relocate the statue.
Sturges represented the Sons of Confederate Veterans in a dispute last year with UNC-Chapel Hill over the disposition of the campus’ dethroned monument known as “Silent Sam.” Sturges negotiated a controversial settlement with the university that gave Silent Sam to the SCV along with $2.5 million the group could use to house, display and preserve it. The agreement was later overturned, and the university has yet to announce what will be done with the statue.
While there was some argument over who actually owned Silent Sam, Sturges said it’s clear that Louisburg owns its monument.
Sturges said that while protests around the Louisburg monument had been peaceful, they had begun to attract people on both sides from outside the community.
“You had some people who had some beliefs — honestly held beliefs — but you start looking at what happened in Raleigh and we don’t have a police force big enough to handle that.”
Louisburg has about 3,500 residents and a police force of about 15 people.
“I’m a town council member first,” Sturges said, “and your job is try to look after your town and your people, and I thought this was the best way to sort of try to (bring that about). And I didn’t want the statue to get torn down and vandalized and defaced. I don’t think anybody in town wanted that. No one wanted a bunch of foolishness.”
Statue installed in 1914
Louisburg’s monument to “Our Confederate Dead” was installed in 1914, at a time when similar ones were being raised all over the South. It was paid for with at least $3,500 contributed to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
At the time, states were enacting Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised Blacks and eliminated the social and political gains they had made. Also, five decades had passed since the end of the Civil War and veterans of the conflict were dying off.
When it was installed, it sat at the edge of the then-all-white Methodist-affiliated Louisburg College. The school now has a majority-Black student body and a bigger campus, with buildings on both sides of Main Street. Students at the college cross the street in the shadow of the monument every day.
Wright was familiar with the statue from the time she was a child in Louisburg attending segregated schools in which every academic year started with worn-out textbooks handed down from the all-white school. Blacks were not allowed inside most restaurants in Louisburg and, Wright recalled in a phone interview with The News & Observer, they had to pay the same prices for department-store goods but had to stand at a designated door and ask for what they wanted. They were not allowed inside.
When her family would travel to Henderson, Wright said, her father would detour off Main Street to avoid having to pass that monument.
“It was a symbol of slavery, of racism, of just not being equal,” Wright recalled. “It was just there from day one and that’s what we had been taught.”
Council member Christopher Neal also grew up in a segregated Louisburg and said he remembers some minor vandalism to the statue occurring in the spring or summer of 1968, around the time of Martin Luther King’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations.
Neal said it’s important that the council didn’t vote to take the monument and hide it away in storage.
“Why not remove the statue and place it where it belongs?” he asked in an interview with the N&O. “The words are on the statue: It’s to honor the Confederate dead. They’re not lying in Main Street. They’re in a respectable cemetery, where they lie in peace and honor. Why not move the statue there?”
Opposition to the plan
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Larry Norman, a Louisburg attorney and a Republican candidate for the N.C. Senate District 18, posted a video on Facebook in which he promised to fight the town’s plan.
“There is no reason to move this monument,” Norman said in the video. “It makes no sense.”
Norman said moving the monument would be a violation of state law, and that instead, it should be projected by the police.
“The town of Louisburg is on notice,” said Norman, who could not be reached for comment. “There will be resistance, legally and otherwise, because the rule of law still means something.”
The motion the board approved Monday is nearly identical to a proposal first made by Louisburg College art instructor Will Hinton in a sermon at a local Episcopal church in October 2017.
Hinton said two years ago that he had been widely criticized by town residents for suggesting that the statue might be better suited to stand in the cemetery where it could honor the dozens of men who enlisted in the Confederate Army, most of them into infantry units, starting in the spring of 1861. Hinton’s great-great-grandfather donated the land that is now the town-owned Oakwood Cemetery, also known as Louisburg Cemetery, just outside the town limits.
Hinton said he views the council’s decision as momentous.
“It’s an important day for Louisburg,” he said. But he added, “It’s not a time for a victory lap. It’s time to slowly, humbly, calmly walk hand in hand.”
The council vote did not set a timeline for the statue’s relocation.