A five-member ad hoc committee created by the North Carolina Historical Commission decided Monday there will be at least one public hearing on the possible relocation of three Confederate monuments.
The three monuments on North Carolina’s old Capitol Grounds commemorate the first Confederate soldier to die in battle, North Carolina Women of the Confederacy and fallen Confederate soldiers.
Machelle Sanders, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Administration, submitted a petition in September to relocate the monuments to the Bentonville Battlefield, about 45 miles southeast from the original location.
W.Fitzhugh Brundage, chairperson of the UNC history department, said the committee faces a decision that is very legally murky, and the state legislature is likely to intervene if it decides to relocate the monuments.
“If the historical commission does say that the monuments should be removed, there’s immediately going to be a legal challenge,” he said. “I would think there would be years of legal haggling in that case.”
Brundage said the Historical Commission will likely be very cautious about a small, non-elected body making a controversial decision and expects a long-drawn-out process ahead.
“The Historical Commission is put in a thankless task of having to make what is essentially a political decision,” he said.
Harry Watson, a professor of southern culture at UNC, said the question will likely end up in court. What the court will decide, he said, is still uncertain.
“It’ll take some artful lawyering to persuade the historical commission that it’s legal to remove the monuments,” he said.
Watson said the monuments were erected decades after the Civil War, following the creation of voting and segregation laws.
“They in effect celebrated that victory by putting up monuments — not to the victory itself but, ironically, to Confederate defeat,” he said.
Brundage said the initial erection of the monuments was a way for North Carolina to prove loyalty to the Confederate cause.
“This was a way to address another glaring issue, which was that North Carolinians had deserted the Confederate army during the war itself, and that there had been lots of North Carolinians who had refused to fight for the Confederacy,” he said.
Brundage said the monuments were controversial at first, but they were largely ignored because of the attention given to the Confederate flag. The public spaces holding the monuments also became less important over time.
“People invoked the Confederacy in defense of white supremacy, but when they did that they did it invariably with the flag,” he said. “The statues were like antiques that no one paid any attention to.”
Watson said the relocation of the three monuments would represent an effort made by the state government to reject the idea of the Confederacy as a noble fight for white civilization.
“It’d be a gesture towards inclusiveness that would say that all North Carolinians, whether they’re white or not, are equal members of the political and social community here in North Carolina,” he said. “And the Confederacy was diametrically opposed to that, so it would be a sort of rejection of the Confederacy’s ideas.”
The commission did not set a date for the hearing, as they wait for more recommendation and information from various sources, such as law schools and historians.
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