State and local officials are pointing fingers over the mysterious memorial road marker in Chapel Hill.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted on Oct. 16 to repeal a 1959 resolution to name U.S. Highway 15 as Jefferson Davis Highway after several residents began questioning the name.
The marker, honoring the president of the Confederate States of America, is located at the intersection of Henderson and Franklin streets, a few feet away from McCorkle Place.
The county commissioners do not have jurisdiction to move the marker and could only repeal the naming, which was never federally recognized. Actually moving the marker will rely on determining who owns the property and has control of the marker.
At the time of publication, the Town of Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Department of Transportation have said the Jefferson Davis Highway marker lies outside of their respective right of way, or jurisdiction, and are therefore unable to remove it.
The Town of Chapel Hill, NCDOT and the University’s right of way claims have so far been contradictory and inconclusive.
NCDOT has publicly stated the memorial is not on the DOT’s right of way for Franklin Street, so it cannot remove the property.
“Based on the investigation of our Right of Way Office, NCDOT does not have any recorded right of way and can only claim maintenance to the back of the curb at the plaque location," said Steve Abbott, assistant director of communications for NCDOT. "The Town of Chapel Hill maintains the brick sidewalk adjacent to the monument."
However, the Town, at time of publication, did not verify to The Daily Tar Heel that the marker is the Town's property and did not provide records indicating its installation. A member of the Mayor's staff said the marker does not exist in the Town's right of way.
Jeni Cook, a media relations manager for UNC, said in an email that the marker is on Town property.
Nan Fulcher, a UNC doctoral graduate, said student activists protesting Silent Sam and discussing the Jefferson Davis Memorial Marker inspired her to begin her own investigation into the marker a little more than a year ago.
“I realized after a little while, the Silent Sam stuff was absorbing so much time and effort that I knew the Jefferson Davis thing was just going to fall at the wayside unless somebody from outside the campus picked it up,” Fulcher said.
Fulcher found in her investigation that the N.C. Highway Commission did not approve the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s initial petition in 1922 to designate a series of roadways from Virginia to South Carolina as Jefferson Davis Highway.
However in 1957, an amendment gave county commissioners the power to name highways at a county level. Previously, this power was held by the NCDOT Highway Commission. This allowed the UDC to petition Orange County to name the roadway.
Fulcher said some historians she talked with mentioned there may be so many markers across counties that it would be difficult to catalogue them all.
“We found out that the marker really doesn’t belong to anyone right now,” Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich said. “We are in this sort of quagmire like, ‘Who owns the marker?’ and, ‘How do we get it moved?’”
While Fulcher said she had originally hoped to give her research to someone with more political power, it seemed as though no one entity had records to validate the marker or ownership of the property.
Fulcher said although the repeal of the name was successful, she now has to face an even more complex problem of ownership. At the time of publication, it is still unclear if the marker is privately owned and who has right of way of the property it stands on.
Fulcher said how the marker is legally recognized will play an important role in its future. However, she said her talks with historians have shown that the process of archiving artifacts into the historical record when the marker was erected may not have been maintained as rigorously as it is today.
She said a private organization today would not be allowed to put up what might be considered a memorial or public art without some kind of record or paperwork.
In her research, Fulcher has not found a record of the marker with the N.C. Historical Commission. She said she considers the marker to be unconfirmed and never publicly recorded like other artifacts in modern day.
Rich said she thinks the absence of evidence poses an interesting question for whoever is responsible for that property.
“In the absence of not knowing who it belongs to, why should it stay there?” Rich said. “The fact that it’s just been allowed to be there for 60 years is interesting to me, because it’s not private property.”
Fulcher said to her, the marker is a larger problem because it represents a version of alternate history. She said she is not a fan of honoring anyone in this way because she thinks it puts people on a pedestal in a way that loses the complexity of someone’s life.
She said she thinks it is not just removing what she views as a symbol of negativity, but also correcting the historical record.
“I feel equally as disturbed by the fact that an altered historical record is going to feed people’s ideas about the South — about the experience of minority populations,” Fulcher said. “Trying to correct the record and really find a way to establish a truth rather than someone’s alternate version of history, that’s a hugely important issue.”
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