By Dave Russell
The decision to remove the Confederate monument on the Courthouse steps overlooking Sylva belongs with Jackson County and the state. That didn’t stop Sylva’s town board from making its feelings known Monday by 3-2 vote approving a resolution asking county commissioners to remove it.
Before board members raised hands to vote on the issue, 12 members of the public spoke via phone at the virtual meeting. Nine spoke in favor of the resolution to remove the bronze statue, three to leave it alone.
In addition to the 26-participant Zoom meeting, the town broadcast the meeting on Facebook Live. The livestream garnered more than 6,400 views, 991 comments and 40 shares.
After handling some other business, such as appointing Luther Jones to another three-year term on the Historic Preservation Board, the board got down to the business that brought many citizens to their computer screens.
Board member Mary Gelbaugh spoke first. Removing the monument would not erase racism, she said.
“Faith and fear cannot occupy the same space,” Gelbaugh said. “I’m not going to put my faith and trust in an inanimate object. I’m not going to give it that kind of power. We can make this a win-win and we can make this a county in which everybody feels safe and welcome and that’s up to us as individuals to speak our truth and show our truth and to love one another in Christian love.”
In a previous meeting, Gelbaugh proposed removing the bas relief Confederate battle flag from the monument pedestal as a “win-win” solution.
Board member David Nestler, who proposed the resolution, said voting for the resolution does not say that the Civil War was not a sacrifice worth memorializing.
“But we must also remember that this sacrifice was for upholding the institution of slavery,” he said. “It’s not a vote to erase anybody’s heritage, and we are not talking about tearing down the statue. We’re talking about relocating it. This is the compromise proposal.”
Placing the statue in 1915 was about glorifying the Confederate soldier, not about memorializing him, Nestler said.
The monument implies Confederate soldiers suffered more hardships than the estimated 268 slaves in the county at the time of the war, he said.
“All citizens feel safe and valued in this town,” board member Barbara Hamilton said.”Why can’t we come to an agreement? Why do we have to rush to a conclusion? We need to take time to listen and not dictate, and that’s to everybody. We should commemorate all deaths. This should be a memorial to the fallen of both Union and Confederate soldiers.”
The statue came about because the mothers of Union and Confederate soldiers wanted a memorial for their fallen sons, she said.
Hamilton said she would like to talk to her black friends.
“They never said that they felt in danger,” she said. “I don’t know what has happened to the climate around here.”
Greg McPherson spoke next.
“I don’t believe the majority of the people who want to keep the soldier on the hill believe they are racists, but embracing a narrative where slavery never existed and the ‘lost cause’ was a noble one to justify your feelings in the present is a false choice,” he said.
Sylva should take note of the changing times and the nationwide movement to ban Confederate and other offensive symbols, he said.
“The time to change locally has come,” McPherson said. “I don’t believe the statue as the centerpiece of town reflects our shared values and morality. Racism is not tolerable anymore, and we are not going to look the other way anymore.”
McPherson suggested a fountain in the space, one that could be lit up with Smoky Mountain High School’s blue and silver colors during graduation; purple and gold when Western Carolina University has events; and red, white and blue for the Fourth of July.
“The right thing is to make Sylva a better place that is more welcoming for everyone who lives here, for everyone who works here, for everyone who visits here, and especially those young families who choose to live here and raise their children here, like my wife and I did,” board member Ben Guiney said. “I feel I am fulfilling my service to the town I live in to request the Jackson County Commissioners relocate the Confederate monument from the steps of the library.”
The board would be making history with a vote to pass the resolution, not erasing history, he said.
Guiney suggested replacing the monument with “a sculpture or piece of art in partnership with the Cherokee Nation.”
Removing the statue would not erase the racism people feel in their hearts, Mayor Lynda Sossamon said.
“I hope that our board will love each other no matter how we vote, and let’s try to remove racism from our hearts and love each other,” she said.
Sossamon called for a vote. McPherson, Nestler and Guiney voted to remove the statue; Hamilton and Gelbaugh against.