In the conclusion this week to a two-part series about race relations and the state of racism in Chatham County, we talk with local observers about where we are and where we could be headed to make Chatham, as one interviewee put it, a “more harmonious and welcoming” county.
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Editor’s note: In the conclusion this week to a two-part series about race relations and the state of racism in Chatham County, we talk with local observers about where we are — including ongoing conflicts in Chatham County over the removal of the Confederate monument in Pittsboro — and where we could be headed, as well as the one thing our interview subjects say needs to occur to make Chatham, as one interviewee put it, a “more harmonious and welcoming” county.
On August 23, 1907, a monument to “Our Confederate Heroes” — the copper statue crafted in a Durham factory in the likeness of a Confederate solider — took what onlookers that day likely considered to be its permanent place, atop a granite pedestal a few paces from the front entrance of the Chatham County Courthouse.
The positioning was prominent: in the center of Pittsboro, itself the seat of Chatham County government.
And positioned there, the north-facing Confederate soldier — erected the same year John Wayne was born and the first electric ball was dropped in Times Square on in New York City on New Year’s Eve — would stand for the next 112 years. It was a silent but steadfast witness to more than 100 years of history including women realizing the right to vote, the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and wars from the “War to End All Wars” through the Cold War and into the War on Terror.
The statue had been standing in place for 14 years on Sept. 18, 1921, the date of death listed for 16-year-old Eugene Daniel, Chatham County’s last lynching victim. Daniel would likely have seen the statue after being abducted from Pittsboro’s jail to New Hope Township, where he was hanged.
A burgeoning “national movement,” however — as former Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller called it — would bring the long-standing statue down late last year.
Only a matter of time
“There were always citizens when I was mayor who complained about the monument,” Voller said.
But neither the mayor nor Pittsboro commissioners, “other than getting on a soapbox, had no actual legal authority to get involved,” according to Voller. The statue stood on county property and was, itself, the property of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group organized in the late 19th century, leaving Pittsboro merely the “municipal overlay,” Voller said, with no say in the matter.
But in August of 2017 in the immediate aftermath of deadly violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an event which quickly spawned a response in Durham, where protesters damaged and toppled that city’s long-standing Confederate monument, Voller was one of the first to raise questions — at least publicly — about the local Confederate monument’s future standing in Chatham.
“I wanted to start a dialogue,” he said, “and have that dialogue include all parties.”
He took his concerns to Chatham County commissioners.
“It was only a matter of time before the monument here became a locust point of organizing,” Voller said. “This was becoming a national movement. They tore the monument down in Durham, then the Silent Sam situation [in Chapel Hill]. Where’s the next logical place? Well, look at the map and you can see the Jefferson Davis Highway, where they put these monuments. The one in Pittsboro — that’s the significant one. It’s right in the middle of U.S. 64 and U.S. 15-501. It’s right in front of a prominent historic courthouse.”
“We’re talking,” Del Turner, a member of the Chatham County Board of Education, said of the monument, “about a representation of a person who actually fought against this country, who is trying to invoke the concept that it’s OK for one human being to own another human being, no matter what color that human being is. It goes against every religious tenet, universally, not just in this country. The Confederacy rebukes that.”
The statue, Turner said, “has larger, much larger, implications, because then there was this new narrative that grew out of it about why the Civil War happened, that the North came and aggressed upon the South.”
This narrative is sometimes referred to as the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” or simply the “Lost Cause,” which maintains the Civil War was an effort by the South to fend off Northern aggression — denying or minimizing the role of slavery in the bloody conflict.
The Lost Cause narrative made its way “even into literature introduced into the school system at the time,” said Carl Thompson, a former Chatham County commissioner and self-described “history buff.”
“All of a sudden, the Civil War was not fought over slavery,” Thompson said, “but that the South was really wanting to maintain its own identity and independence. I think the picture they wanted to paint was of the ‘Glorious South,’ that we were fighting for honor and a cause that had nothing to do with slavery.”
Why, Turner asks, glorify a loss?
“They lost,” she said. “That’s just the bottom line.”
In other counties, Turner said, “where there has been some type of human rights violation against the people, the symbols of that violation don’t exist. Where in Germany do you find statues of Hitler?”
And revisionist history of the Civil War — which Turner said diminishes or ignores the central role that slavery played in the War Between the States — has not occurred without contemporary consequences.
“I feel that it’s standing there,” Turner said of the now-removed confederate memorial, “for people who have been socialized into believing that false narrative about the Civil War, which, by the way, is defamatory to people of color, African-Americans in particular. Dylann Roof [the white supremacist, now 25, who, on June 17, 2015, shot and killed nine people — all black — at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.] is a good example. You look at the comments he made after he killed those nine people in church — because black people are the cause of all the ills in society; because they don’t work; they want to live off the system. This is stuff that comes out of that narrative.”
“To me,” said Larry Brooks, president of the West Chatham NAACP, “that Confederate statue represented racism.”
Inside the county courthouse outside of which the statue stood, Brooks remembers encountering segregated restrooms and water fountains as a youth.
“There was a place for the coloreds,” Brooks said. “There was a place for the whites.”
But even after drinking fountains and bathrooms were no longer segregated according to race, the statue remained.
Thompson drove past it “a thousand times” during his years in elected county office and was mindful, he said, of “the negative aspects of history that statue spoke to.”
“My thoughts were, one, that it shouldn’t be there,” Thompson said, “and I wish it wasn’t there; but the second thing I thought was: I never thought it would ever come down. Never. It was unfathomable.”
During his years on the elected county board, Thompson said, he sometimes voiced concerns, “but nothing ever transpired in terms of a focused effort” regarding its removal.
A year or so before the statue’s removal by the county late last year, however, Thompson began meeting with other local residents who, like him, wished to see it removed. They began — one speaker at a time over the course of several months — to bring their concerns to county commissioners.
Even then, removal of the statue seemed unlikely given a state law enacted to protect — or at least prevent the removal of — historic monuments from government property.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, however, “consciousness was raised throughout the country,” Thompson said.
“People were doing it, removing statues,” he said. “Some were, unfortunately, doing it in a violent way, in Durham and Chapel Hill and elsewhere. ...I’m not against historical monuments, or what they represent because they do represent a time in history that I think we can look at, we can study, and we can learn from; but none of them need prominence in front of a courthouse, which is the center of law, power and authority.”
“Even now,” Thompson said, “you don’t see much on the history of slavery [taught in public schools.]”
But that history, he said, is important.
“There was an Alamance County commissioner, I understand, who made a statement that slaves were workers who were paid,” Thompson said, referring to Alamance County commissioner Tim Sutton’s 2017 comments, widely reported at the time, about slavery during a discussion on Confederate statues and memorials. “It’s what his father told him,” Thompson said. “And I’m thinking, ‘My God, somebody’s got their history all wrong.’”
Getting the history right, said Randy Voller, is important.
“The history will set you free,” he said. “Go back and read it.”
But, of course, not everyone accepts the same history.
The controversy — first over whether to remove the statue; and continuing later, even now in the aftermath of its removal in the early morning hours of November 20, 2019 — surrounding the “Our Confederate Heroes” monument exposed a difficulty some people still have with the historic record.
“I think [the statue issue] pulled a Band-Aid off a wound that was there,” said Karen Howard, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. “Who writes the stories we hear? That’s always important. To realize how many people believed the Lost Cause narrative, who bought into it. That shocked me.”
The statue controversy seemed to embolden some in Chatham County to voice racist sentiments.
About a decade ago, Thompson — who had been elected straight out of college to the county board of commissioners in 1978 and served until 1990, then was elected to another four-year term in 2010 — was the target of a racist attack.
“My life wasn’t threatened,” he said, but he recalls an incendiary devise of some kind being placed in his mailbox at his home and exploding.
“And there was a word — ‘NIGGER’ — written in big red letters, on the highway in front of my house,” he said. “It ran the expanse of the whole road in front of the house. Somebody took some time to do it.”
But that act was committed with stealth by a perpetrator never identified.
Last year, during the period of the most heated debate on the Confederate statue’s status in Pittsboro, another black county commissioner was targeted with more racist rhetoric, but this time not by anonymous perpetrators.
Howard, the only African-American presently serving on the county board, received several e-mail messages and Facebook comments that she described as “pretty hateful.”
One e-mailer called her a “nigger bitch,” while another threated her family, saying they would “die sooner than you might think.”
“I’m pretty tolerate,” Howard said. “I know that I put myself out there as a public figure. But I’m not that tolerant when it comes to my kids. You don’t get to threaten my kids.”
She shared her concerns with county law enforcement, but perhaps the most eye-opening part of the experience, she said, was that the people making those comments weren’t hiding behind anonymity.
“I was shocked that people would say these things from their personal addresses and post from their personal Facebook pages,” Howard said, “that they weren’t being secret or clandestine. These are people in the community, and the level of venom from people who were comfortable identifying themselves was shocking. I think there is a sense that I brought that [monument] issue up, that I championed it and that it was based on some dislike, disrespect for people who are deeply tied to North Carolina and its past, its Confederate past, which was not the case at all.”
But racism, she said, can take other, less obvious forms.
“It can be so subtle,” she said. “Somebody sends me a hateful e-mail, that’s just hate. When it’s subtle — like, ‘Well, she shouldn’t have been wearing that’; that ‘black boys are more dangerous’; that they’re ‘stronger, more tolerant of pain’ —those kinds of things, we have to have a conversation about.”
With protesters on both sides of the monument issue — even now, months after its removal — still gathering in Pittsboro with opposing signs and sentiments, Howard said we’re “too early in” to completely assess the monument issue and its impacts.
“I think aside from the initial passion that rose up around the removal of the monument, most people are still where they were,” she said. “I do think it opened a crack, and the conversation has to continue. But I don’t even think we’ve really begun it.”
“There is decidedly something about most of Chatham,” Howard said, “that is simply welcoming and warm. And I recognized that as soon as I got here.”
But there remains in Chatham, she said, “spaces that I don’t feel entirely welcome. And it’s true of other places in North Carolina, too. But there are spaces where I show up and I am ‘the black person.’ Certainly during the campaign [for re-election to the county board] there will be some campaign events that will be held in places — and I’m not talking about parts of the county because I don’t think there are whole parts — where you’re a guest there, and it’s palpable. And I don’t want to call them out, but ...”
Howard said she enters those spaces “willingly, because I think we have to challenge those notions and not... It would be so easy to just let go of it, wash my hands and let people be who they want to be. But at the same time, do I want to hand on to my kids the same challenges? I think we can do better if we insist on better from each other.”
Bob Pearson, a member of Chatham Community NAACP Branch #5377, said the United States is undergoing change, “hurtling into a future of growing opportunity and challenge.”
Chatham, with its population projected to increase by more than 70 percent between 2010 and 2030, “should be seen as a model for that growth,” Pearson said, “as a harmonious and welcoming place to live and raise families and provide good jobs.”
It’s a goal shared, Pearson said, by “nearly everyone I meet. ... This majority seems willing and ready to reach out to others in order to move pass divisiveness. They want race relations to improve in order to take advantage of these future opportunities.”
Brooks, the president of the West Chatham NAACP, agrees.
While some people cling to racist beliefs, Brooks said, noting the proliferation of rebel flags in the county as a result of the monument debate, “I don’t think it’s the majority of Chatham County. You can tell that when people are standing up in Pittsboro against the statue.”
Sit down and talk
Improving race relations will require conversation, agreed all the people interviewed for this story.
“It’s probably something that’s the easiest thing to do, and yet the hardest,” said Thompson. “And that’s for people to sit down and talk. People are just resistant to it. It’s the hardest topic in the world to talk about.”
But he’s seen how having those difficult conversations about race can make a positive difference. About three years ago, Thompson helped launch a group called Chatham Organizing for Racial Equality (CORE), which has met periodically since, conducting local workshops on race relations, discussing, he said, “racism and the history of racism and some of the fallacies.”
“You’d be surprised when the workshop is over,” he said. “I’ve had people to just break emotionally — and these are all white people — who tell me ‘Nobody ever told me this. Nobody ever told me this.’
“There is a scripture in the Bible,” Thompson said, “where Jesus says ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ I think it’s just understanding the truth, on both sides. It helps people to see why they think and act the way they do.”
“Oh, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Turner. “But it begins with dialogue, people talking.”
“You have to start asking difficult questions that people don’t want to hear,” Voller said, “like: Should there be reparations? ... Just opening that dialogue is a difficult and painful process, but it’s a process that should happened. We should talk about it.”
“There have been multiple times,” Howard said, “that I’ve been involved in conversations at the county level and ‘minority’ and ‘poor’ are used interchangeably. So this notion that poverty is a people of color thing, it hinges on some racist underlying beliefs. And I think it’s important for us to challenge them in a way that doesn’t demean the person making the comment, because the reason I want to talk about it, and I feel we have to talk about it, is because I feel we can’t address it without talking about it. We can’t address it by making people feel guilty or silenced in certain company.”
Our history remains vital to that conversation, according to Pearson.
To improve race relations, he said, “we should ask to have our county’s whole history told — in public discussion, in schools, in places of worship, and in public spaces — in order to have a foundation to build on together. Today there is a black history in the county and a white history in the county, but in fact there is only one history, and that is the history of what happened to all our ancestors from the beginning to today. Let’s just start there — with a full accounting through the Chatham County Historical Society and the county library of the whole history of the black and white experience in the county — beginning to end.
“I spent my life as a U.S. diplomat bridging differences between people,” Pearson said. “As a person born and raised in the South, its history and heartbreak are in my blood. Everyone in this county agrees that family history and community history should not be forgotten or hidden, even if someone else disagrees with what that should mean. To tell hard history without looking for some person or race to blame, begin with language that shows respect but provides the facts without judgment. It’s the only way; it is not possible to lecture someone into a different understanding. Then keep going until it’s all out there for everyone to see. I think there are any number of people here who would be willing to undertake such an effort to enable a brighter future of Chatham County.”
“We have a long ways to go,” Thompson said. “And even though I’m a little skeptical, I would hate to see things not change. And there are things that have happened that I never thought would happen in this country. One is to elect an African-American president. The other would be the removal of that statue. So there’s always a chance.”
Randall Rigsbee can be reached at email@example.com.
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