PITTSBORO — Defenders of the “Our Confederate Heroes” monument in downtown Pittsboro were awarded a temporary restraining order Monday, preventing the removal of the statue which stands on the grounds of the Chatham County Historic Courthouse.
The decision comes following a complaint filed last week by the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and three Chatham citizens in county Superior Court, asking the court to determine the question of the monument’s ownership and claiming the monument’s removal would be “irreparably harm(ful)” to the group.
The court will take up the case again on November 8 in Pittsboro.
James Davis, the attorney representing the UDC and Chatham residents Barbara Pugh, Gene Brooks and Thomas Clegg — each of whom claimed to be “ancestors” (rather than descendants) of “a member of the armed forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War” in the filing — said at a hearing Monday that the statue was “accepted as a gift,” noting that public funds have been used previously to dismantle, restore and reinstall the statue in 1988.
Davis argued that when the board of commissioners voted in August to remove and relocate the statue, the board asserted that the property was owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy, a claim the complaint denies. The complaint states that the resolutions, as well as the subsequent resolution on Monday ordering the removal of the statue, were “unlawful” based on a 2015 North Carolina law protecting publicly owned monuments.
In August, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to terminate an agreement between the county and the UDC allowing for the placement of the monument. That decision has been followed protests and counter-protests in downtown Pittsboro each Saturday, along with the erection of a Confederate flag across the street from nearby Horton Middle School — which at one point was the county’s segregated African-American high school — named in honor of the slave poet George Moses Horton.
Nick Ellis, the attorney representing the county commissioners, said the case is fundamentally a real estate one based on a license obtained from the N.C. Archives in Raleigh. The UDC has claimed the monument belongs to the county, but the license states that the statue belongs to the UDC and the county allowed it to be placed on its property. That license can be revoked at any time, Ellis noted, on which basis the commissioners took action in August.
Ellis also cited two separate state statutes, both put in place in 1868, which said any property obtained by the county, whether by purchase or gift, requires a resolution or an ordinance. Since the monument was dedicated in 1907, and no such resolution or ordinance exists, he argued, the county would not have ownership of it.
But Judge Charles M. “Casey” Viser chose to grant the temporary restraining order. Viser is a visiting judge from Mecklenburg County and appears to be presiding over this case and the subsequent hearing for a preliminary injunction at the end of the 10-day temporary restraining order period.
“While Chatham County respects the judge’s ruling, we are disappointed in the outcome and look forward to continuing to present our case at the Nov. 8 hearing,” Kara Dudley, the county’s public information officer, said in a statement following the ruling. “At that time, the court will consider whether a preliminary injunction will be issued.”
The court also took up the question of security of the monument and at surrounding protests during the hearing. Ellis asked for a bond for the temporary restraining order, money that would be used to support the ongoing costs for security. Following the August vote on the statue, Ellis said, it’s estimated that the county has incurred more than $100,000 in expenses, predominately for law enforcement, to ensure the safety of residents. Though Viser did not award the $25,000 bond requested, he did assign a $6,000 bond the UDC would pay. Viser also set a deadline of Friday at noon for the bond to be posted.
Davis, the UDC’s lawyer, also argued that Viser should also impose a 200-feet area around the statue to “protect” it as well as ensuring 200 feet between the various protesting groups, despite the UDC’s claim in its complaint that there had been no vandalism of the monument. Viser asked Rick Counsel, an attorney for the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, if the request was reasonable or actionable. Counsel stated that he had questions about the constitutionality of the request in light of protections for free speech, but also noted that the department would not have the manpower to support such a request. Viser agreed and stated that the current barriers should be sufficient.
Following Monday’s ruling, the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans released a statement in support of the UDC, congratulating them “in their fight against the Chatham County government.”
“In a long, intentionally draw-out battle waged by the County Board of Commissioners, the Davis Chapter UDC has stood firm for law and order in Chatham County,” the statement said. “While it has been totally and unjustly ignored in places like Durham, Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem, state law clearly prevents the removal of objects of remembrance on public property. We hope that this glimmer of hope in Chatham County will be the beginning of the end for lawlessness and mob rule in our state and that the Chatham County Board of Commissioners will be forced to abide by the same laws that it expects its citizens to obey.”