GRAHAM — Tensions are high as debate over a Confederate statue persists while permits to protest its presence are denied.
In a news release last Friday, the Graham Police Department said that permits for protests won’t be granted for the “foreseeable future” because of “a clear and imminent threat to public safety.”
It’s just the latest ripple effect as North Carolina grapples with systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
At the heart of that struggle is a variety of Confederate monuments that dot small towns and cities across the state. A number of groups want them gone — or at least relocated — and have been successful in the last few weeks.
In contrast, those who view monuments to the Confederacy as part of their Southern heritage have been steadfastly fighting their removal at every turn.
Graham’s announcement came following a series of protests over its Confederate monument, which was dedicated in 1914 and is located at the city’s historic courthouse. During a protest there on June 20, two men were arrested.
Late last week, roughly 150 people dressed in black and wearing masks walked around downtown until 8 p.m., according to local media outlets. Law enforcement was present, but since marchers weren’t carrying signs or chanting, no one was charged with violating the protest ban.
And during a protest over the weekend, a 27-year-old Burlington man was arrested after he became confrontational and refused to leave, according to police.
The issue became more divisive on Monday. Nearly 50 of Alamance County’s government, business and education leaders signed a letter urging elected officials to relocate the Confederate statue.
At a press conference Monday morning, those leaders made their case for the monument’s removal.
Connie Ledoux Book, the president of Elon University, said the monument “has long been a source of conflict in our community and it stands as a symbol of racism for many.”
“Our society is becoming more fully aware of the stark realities of racism and injustice,” Book said. “Now is a time for truth, healing and a new commitment to the concepts of liberty and justice for all. I am convinced we cannot fully achieve the aspirations of our democracy with divisive symbols such as this Confederate monument in Graham in our midst.”
On Monday afternoon, the Alamance County Board of Commissioners said in a statement that it does not have the “legal authority” under state law to remove the monument.
The five-member board also accused those who signed the letter of keeping the effort hidden.
“Why was it done in secret and then unveiled at a press conference?” the statement said. “This would lead an observer to believe that this ‘call to action’ is political in nature. Its true purpose would not appear to be to persuade the commissioners, but to ambush them in as public a manner as possible.”
LOUISBURG — In thousands of towns throughout the South, the old markers of racial segregation — separate public water fountains marked “Colored” or “White,” side entrances at the theater, divided waiting rooms in the doctor’s office — are long gone except for in the memories of people such as Chris Neal, who lived those ignominies well into his teenage years.
But one relic, forged of bronze and set in stone, remains perched on the highest hill of one of the busiest streets in Louisburg, a stubborn reminder that not so many generations ago, Neal’s ancestors would have been under the complete dominion of those of his white neighbors. Treated as inhuman. Disenfranchised. Enslaved.
At least, that’s what Louisburg’s “Monument to Our Confederate Soldiers” means to him.
“That statue is very divisive,” said Neal, a member of the Louisburg Town Council who voted last week to relocate the monument from its grassy island in the middle of Main Street to a nearby city-owned cemetery where veterans of the Civil War are buried.
Larry Norman, an attorney in town and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has filed a motion seeking an injunction against the move. As evening falls, a contingent of monument supporters stakes out the statue, in case a crane comes in the night to spirit the soldier away.
Across North Carolina, those who regard monuments to the Confederacy as “heritage, not hate,” are aggrieved over the removal, whether by vote or by violence, of a growing number of them.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were monuments to the Confederacy in at least 140 public spaces in North Carolina in 2016. Most were commissioned by local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which raised the money and often chose the monuments from catalogs produced by northern foundries.
Most of the monuments were installed at times when Southern states were resisting efforts by Black residents to get political power and civil rights. They were especially popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when white Democrats dominated legislatures in Southern states and enacted Jim Crow Laws.
After standing for decades, at least nine of the monuments in North Carolina have been taken down or are slated to be, including the one in Louisburg.
This year, the pace has accelerated due to protests that have followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after an officer held his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Opposition to the monuments has ebbed and flowed as well.
Some statues were vandalized or targeted for removal during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They came under scrutiny again after a white man shot and killed nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. And they became a flashpoint again in August 2017 after white nationalists rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., that was scheduled to be moved, and one of the white supremacists drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman.
The protests following George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police have lent a greater urgency to vandals’ efforts to destroy and officials’ push to peacefully remove Confederate monuments.
Protesters complaining about police brutality against Blacks and about systemic racism in American society see the monuments’ century-long stances on public lands as government endorsement of white supremacist attitudes that have survived emancipation, the Civil War and decades of racial equity work.
“The things we make monuments to are things we want to pay tribute to,” said Juanita Moore, a member of the state’s African American Heritage Commission, charged with examining ways to diversify the memorials on the State Capitol grounds. A native of Wilson, Moore lived across the nation working as a museum curator and director before returning to North Carolina.
Unlike artifacts and exhibits in museums that are designed to educate in a neutral context, monuments are typically presented without objective historical fact.
“Monuments are not there to teach history,” Moore said in a phone interview. “They are there to show the level of significance, and of importance, and of power of that person, or that idea or that concept. The monument is honoring it. It is not a teaching moment.”
Norman, the attorney trying to stop the relocation of the Louisburg monument, said in an interview that he is opposed to the town council’s decision on two grounds.
He believes the council was disingenuous in calling an emergency meeting to vote on moving the statue when it said it felt the monument was threatened in light of vandalism at other sites.
And he believes the town’s plan to move the statue is illegal under the 2015 law signed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory that bars removing, relocating or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers on public property without permission from the state Historical Commission except in certain circumstances.
Two of Norman’s great-grandfathers and two great-great-grandfathers were “on the right side” of the Civil War, he said. The walls of his law office are covered in portraits of Confederate generals.
“My personal opinion is, that statue needs to stay where it is,” he said. “It hasn’t hurt anybody in 106 years. It memorializes men who fought to save the South and fought to save sovereignty. They sacrificed a lot to protect their homeland.”
Frank Powell of Wake Forest, a spokesman for the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose members have protested the removal or relocation of Confederate monuments, said allowing the threat of violence or vandalism to justify removing century-old monuments amounts to mob rule.
“If we don’t follow the law,” he said, “we’re no better than third-world countries.”
Like some others, Powell said he believes that destroying Confederate statues is an early step in a deliberate process by Marxist, Socialist or Communist followers whose ultimate goal is to erase the material symbols of all kinds of American political and religious history. Recently, he noted, vandals have attacked monuments to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and two Catholic saints.
“It’s our entire history and our entire culture that are under attack,” Powell said. “Some of these people want to destroy it all.”
Moore, the former curator, disagrees.
“It’s not that people are trying to destroy history,” she said. “Folks get that wrong. There is a Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. — and no one is saying, ‘Burn down the Museum of the Confederacy.’
“I am not one for destroying history at all. But there are all kinds of ways to learn. And you don’t start to teach history by making people feel like they are nothing, and that you are somebody because you enslaved other people. Or that only when there is someone who is not as good as me, then I’m somebody.
“And that is what we teach through racism.”
Body check: When sports fans are allowed back into arenas, they’ll have to cover their faces. Page B1
GREENSBORO — As Carol Ghiorsi Hart drove along Elm Street and perused photos of its freshly-painted murals, she pondered: “If I could save just one to start, which would it be?”
Artists and community members had painted these colorful designs and positive messages on plywood-covered storefronts along downtown’s main street.
They expressed thoughts and emotions amid nationwide protests over the Memorial Day death in Minneapolis of George Floyd at the hands of police officers there.
The murals had covered windows either broken by vandals after peaceful protests, or to prevent potential vandalism.
Now, as murals come down, businesses, artists and organizations want to preserve many in museums or schools.
“People called to ask us if we would do anything,” said Hart, director of the Greensboro History Museum. “They felt that this was important, a historic moment and that they should be preserved.”
Hart said “one that connected so many different stories” is Marshall Lakes’ mural in front of stitch-FX at 500 S. Elm St.
It conveys the protests’ overall theme: Black Lives Matter.
With permission from artists and business owners, Hart chose seven more. She might add others.
Saving the murals fits in well with the museum’s mission: to collect and connect through education, public programs and exhibits, Hart said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the museum started its History Happening Now initiative. It collected the public’s stories and photographs about life during a pandemic.
With protests about racial inequality, the museum wanted to add how people responded locally. “That was another part of the story of what is happening now,” Hart said.
“We aren’t an art museum collecting art,” Hart said. “We are a history museum collecting material culture that speaks to the times we are in through the art, businesses, stories of the artist and reactions by the community.”
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After plywood went up in late May and early June, Jennifer Graf of the boutique Vintage to Vogue and mural artist Gina Franco asked store owners whether artists could paint it. Franco’s artistry got it started.
“All of the business owners got involved, which I thought was a very beautiful thing,” Graf said.
Professional and amateur artists — some from as far as Asheboro and Charlotte — and community members flocked downtown to join in. Supporters donated paint, tape, pizza, water or snacks for artists.
“It was a 100 percent grassroots, organic effort,” Graf said.
Mural artist and illustrator Marshall Lakes said he was inspired by a photo that Kevin Greene captured during one of the local demonstrations. It’s of a tall, Black man — Michael Harris — holding the hand of a small, white girl as they lead a group of protesters. The photo went viral.
“When I saw this photo, I was, like, this is the thing I want to paint. This is what I want to say,” Lakes said.
Artist Victoria Carlin Milstein painted on the boarded-up front of her VCM Studio at 517 S. Elm St. She created a mural of a Black child walking on a beach with seagulls overhead.
Miaya Johnson came with her mother, Olabisi, to add their creativity to Milstein’s work. Miaya Johnson added a quote about love and peace from the late rock star Jimi Hendrix. Her mother created impressions of hands.
Jenna Rice painted a portrait of Floyd in front of Crafted — the Art of the Taco at 220 S. Elm St.
A group of artists led by Darlene McClinton painted an expansive mural in front of Elsewhere, the living museum and artist residency at 606 S. Elm St.
Artist Raman Bhardwaj added his artistry to the front of Little Brother Brewing at 348 S. Elm St. His mural shows two young boys, one African American and the other Caucasian, sitting with their arms around each other.
Beka Butts painted murals for Hudson’s Hill and Gate City Candy Company on South Elm Street.
She and Winston-Salem artist Kendal Doub then went to 202 W. Market St, where each painted murals for Stumble Stilskins bar and restaurant.
Downtown became a gallery of about 100 pieces of art. Other cities reached out, asking how Graf and Franco organized it all. Viewers came from as far as Maryland.
“I’ve seen people weep,” Graf said.
Now Graf, Franco and others have turned to finding murals permanent public homes.
“This can’t be a fleeting moment and then the art goes in the trash,” Graf said.
Since each artist owns his or her work, it’s their call whether to donate, sell or keep it.
“Some artists might want to take their artwork home,” Graf said. “Some might want to donate it to a museum.”
For now, several pieces have been stored in developer Andy Zimmerman’s warehouse on Bain Street.
Among them: Rice’s mural of George Floyd, which has been donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Bardwaj’s painting of the two boys has gone to Guilford Preparatory Academy. The school plans to add a plaque, explaining the story behind it, Graf said.
Butts hopes that hers will end up displayed permanently in a local museum or campus.
And some will remain in place for a while.
The International Civil Rights Center and Museum at 134 S. Elm St. doesn’t have the space nor resources to store or preserve them, museum Director John Swaine said.
It has taken photos of the murals, possibly to be used in a future pop-up exhibit.
Since they were built for outdoor use, Swaine said he thinks it’s best for them to be collected and preserved together or mounted inside local businesses as a way of inviting customers to return.
“These pieces of plywood are now part of the history of those business locations,” Swaine said.
Those that went to the Greensboro History Museum include those done by Lakes, Milstein, Franco and others.
The museum now has about 30 panels. In some cases, two panels make up one mural; other murals have multiple boards with graffiti messages spanning them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has closed the museum for now. But when it reopens, it will exhibit murals in a pop-up style. Some will be incorporated into the permanent exhibition, “Voices of a City,” and some into the fall exhibition. “NC Democracy: We’re working on it.”
Even paint brushes and cans will become part of the permanent collection.
It all will be preserved for future generations.
“Democracy requires participation, and through protest, art and voting, people of Greensboro are making their voices heard,” Hart said. “No one knows if this will be a blip in history or a turning point, but it sure feels like something historic is happening.”