By Sarah Nagem
A push to remove the Confederate statue that stands tall in front of the Robeson County Courthouse seems to be gaining momentum.
Tyrone Watson, president of the Robeson County branch of the NAACP, urged county commissioners in February to relocate the statue, which features a Confederate soldier holding a rifle atop a granite obelisk. Since then, members of the Robeson County Bar have voiced their support for relocating the monument.
“We’re not asking for it to be destroyed, because it is part of someone’s heritage,” Watson told the Border Belt Independent. “We just don’t think it should be on public property, where African Americans are paying taxes. I see the courthouse as the people’s house.”
Many Confederate statues across the South were vandalized and ultimately removed following the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. The death of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, sparked months of social unrest in which protesters called for police reforms and equal treatment for Black residents.
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In North Carolina, 23 Confederate monuments were removed in 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper called for the removal of three Confederate monuments in front of the state Capitol weeks after Floyd’s death. Protesters had already torn down two bronze soldiers at the base of a monument.
Leaders of some of the state’s biggest cities, including Charlotte, Greensboro and Wilmington, agreed to remove Confederate statues that were located on public property. Some smaller towns did the same – Oxford, Reidsville and Rockingham among them.
Watson said he didn’t push for the removal of the Robeson County monument in 2020 due to “the emotional state of the people.” The statue was vandalized three years earlier, in 2017, following the death of a counter-protester during unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Now, Watson said, is the time to address it.
The debate about memorials to the Confederacy could be particularly poignant in Robeson, one of the most diverse counties in the state and where racial tensions linger. Home to the Lumbee tribe, more than 35% of the county’s population is made up of Native Americans. Black residents and white residents are split about evenly.
Wixie Stephens, chairwoman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, did not return a message requesting comment.
Watson said Native Americans should support calls to remove the statue, because their ancestors were also treated poorly by the Confederacy. Some were forced into slavery, along with Black people.
Commissioner John Cummings, a Lumbee, agreed that Native Americans were persecuted during the Civil War. He said he wants to hear what his constituents have to say about the monument before he shares his thoughts on whether to remove it.
“It’s too early in the game,” he said. “It’s not something you just say, ‘Hey, we want to move it’ and move it tomorrow. It’s a big deal. It’s not something you do on a whim.”
History of monument
Like many Confederate monuments, the Robeson County statue was installed decades after the Civil War. It was dedicated on May 10, 1907, which was Confederate Memorial Day, according to records from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Then-Gov. Robert Glenn reportedly gave a speech during a dedication ceremony attended by 7,000 people – about 13% of Robeson’s population at the time.
The monument was supported by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and cost $4,000, records show. Most of the money came from private donations, and there were “frequent reports in the local papers of who had donated.”
Some public money was likely spent. Records show Robeson County was expected to contribute $750 for the monument.
The monument has several engravings, including the words “our Confederate dead” in honor of the 2,000 Confederate soldiers from Robeson.
David Ferrell Branch Jr., an attorney who is a member of the Robeson County Bar, recently sent a letter to county commissioners urging them to remove the monument, which he said was “inspired by the white supremacy campaign that took place in the state of North Carolina.”
“Make no mistake, the era in which this statue was erected on our courthouse premises was one of the darkest times involving race relations, equality and justice in our State,” Branch wrote in the letter, which was published online by The Robesonian. “Civil War era symbols like the one at the steps of our courthouse are physical reminders that blacks were systematically disadvantaged in our political system, in our justice system and in our society during the Jim Crow and white supremacy days in the early 20th century.”
Scotland County debate
In neighboring Scotland County, local leaders formed a committee in 2020 to make a recommendation on whether to keep or remove the Confederate statue in downtown Laurinburg.
Archie Herring, a butcher at a local grocery store, was among the committee members in favor of keeping the monument where it is.
“That thing has been sitting there so long,” he said, “and it’s not hurting anybody. … It’s a headstone and monument to those who are somewhere in an unmarked grave.”
Dedicated in 1912, the towering monument was sponsored by the Scotland County chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Its original home was in the middle of a downtown street, but “it apparently became a traffic hazard and was moved onto the courthouse grounds,” according to records from UNC. It was moved in 1964.
A crowd gathered at the monument in 2002 to mark Confederate Memorial Day and the Immortal 600 – “a group of 600 Confederate soldiers who were used as human shields to protect Union positions at Morris Island, S.C.,” records show. Three of the soldiers were from Laurinburg.
During the 2002 event, “a gun salute was performed by reenactors, and ‘Dixie’ was sung prior to the laying of flowers on the steps of the monument,” records say.
The recent committee, made up of community members, first voted to keep the monument, Herring said. But the decision flipped in a later vote, and the group ultimately recommended the monument’s removal to county commissioners.
The statue remains, however, and commissioners have not made any decisions on its future.
Whit Gibson, chairman of the commissioners, said he believes the statue is “offensive to a large proportion of our population.” About half of the residents in Laurinburg are Black.
But Gibson said other issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and the county budget, have taken precedence over any decisions related to the monument.
“This hasn’t made it back to the top of the list,” he said.
Herring said he hopes the debate in Robeson County won’t bring renewed scrutiny to the monument in Scotland. He said people should turn their focus to existing injustices throughout the world.
“All people are not treated equally now,” he said. “If they have a problem with slavery, there’s slavery going on now.”
In Robeson, Watson said he was pleased with the support so far to remove the monument in front of the courthouse in Lumberton.
Maybe it could be moved to a special park or someone could donate private property, he said. But he does not want any taxpayer money to be used to relocate the statue.
“There’s history that we shouldn’t glorify,” Watson said. “What the Confederacy stood for, what they fought for, is not something that should be glorified.”