As signatures increase on dueling change.org petitions – one to remove Sylva’s Confederate monument and one to leave it alone – and the number of marchers grows, government officials and others have responded to the issue.
Sylva has seen a vigil and two marches supporting Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The events have brought the monument into the public spotlight again.
N.C. House District 119 Rep. Joe Sam Queen said the monument is a symbol of the region’s past and not a current problem, so energy should be redirected towards solving the real systemic inequities and injustices that minority citizens face.
“I recognize history is complex and sometimes the addition of commentary and narrative that give context to these monuments is helpful,” he said. “The Jackson County monument is in front of the old historic Courthouse, which is now the county’s Library and history museum. This is a great location for a historical monument of this type to be interpreted in a relevant, contextual way.”
Sylva town board member David Nestler believes the statue should be moved to a different location and cites the effect it has had on the African-American community.
“What needs to be understood here is that a large portion of our community, especially people of color, are personally hurt by its presence,” Nestler said. “Any defense of it can be very painful and insulting to some people despite the fact that it might just seem like a harmless retelling of history.”
Jackson County NAACP Branch President Enrique Gomez wants the statue to be moved but said the removal would not solve long-standing, systemic racial issues.
“Statues, whether they are removed or kept, are symbolic gestures,” Gomez said. “No one should be under the impression that their removal will improve our systemic problems, which includes profound inequities in access to education, healthcare and good-paying sustainable jobs. Policies that embed systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system need to be immediately addressed.”
Nathan Murray, who attended Smoky Mountain High School and created the change.org petition in favor of the statue with more than 3,144 signatures, would support moving the statue to a reasonable location.
“If they wanted to make a memorial for all our soldiers, that would be awesome,” he said. “I could probably go along with (moving it to) the Jackson County Greenway because a lot of people visit there. There are all kinds of little historical areas that other people I’m sure would love to see. This a big tourist area and people do love that.”
The author of the petition to remove the monument, which has 4,844 supporters, declined to speak to The Herald about it.
Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton has put his trust in the hands of local officials.
“This is a community conversation,” he said. “The Sylva Police Department will support the decisions made by Jackson County officials on this matter.”
County Commissioner Gayle Woody said petitions are an effective, peaceful way for citizens to express their stance on the statue and there will be a resolution.
“I have thought deeply about a plan to resolve the issue and have, and am still, reaching out to people from different ‘sides’ to get their input,” Woody said. “It may appear I am avoiding taking a position, but, in all honesty, I am listening to Jackson County citizens of various viewpoints. My personal stance is not important. The thoughts of the citizens of Jackson County are essential.”
Commissioner Ron Mau agrees petitions are an excellent avenue for citizens to come together and present their views on an issue, but also brought up a thought that may be in the back of some citizens’ minds.
“Government often moves slowly and when a final decision is made the last question is: ‘How will that be paid for?’” Mau said last week. “We are in the budget planning process and I plan on requesting an initial allocation of $50,000 to begin the process of considering potential solutions in a safe and rational manner and having funds available for implementation of a solution. This budget item simply starts the funding process for whatever the solution may become.”
Mau’s proposal did not make it into the county’s 2020-21 budget.
The county manager for Pitt County has reported that the removal and storage of their Confederate statue will cost roughly $100,000 and come from the board’s contingency fund for unforeseen expenses.