RALEIGH, N.C. – Seeking further input, a state panel in North Carolina on Friday delayed a decision on whether three Confederate monuments from the grounds of the old Capitol should be moved to a Civil War battlefield in an adjoining county.
The North Carolina Historical Commission voted overwhelmingly to create its own group to study the relocation request from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the state law that allows such monuments to be moved to places of similar honor, prominence and visibility. The commission will then review the group’s report at its meeting next April.
Cooper asked the commission two weeks ago to approve relocating the monuments to the Bentonville Battlefield, one of the last sites for major fighting in the Civil War, about 50 miles from Raleigh.
But the commission opted to postpone any decision until next spring and in the meantime form a subcommittee to examine the two sites and take comments from historians and from legal experts about the thorny 2015 state law. Membership will include the head of the state’s black heritage panel.
The commission of professors, local historic preservation advocates and other citizens appointed by Cooper and Republican predecessor Pat McCrory made clear they weren’t trying to shirk their responsibilities with the delay, with some suggesting it could diffuse current tensions over Civil War history.
“It’s a precedent-setting decision,” interim Chairwoman Mary Lynn Bryan said. “We’re really not used to as a body having issues that are this deep and this problematic coming before us in such a short period of time.”
Cooper says Confederate memorials on public property glorify a war about slavery and should be taken down statewide. The calls for moving the monuments from the square where the state’s 1840 Capitol sits came in the weeks following a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the subsequent toppling of a local monument in Durham.
State and local governments across the South are debating and reconsidering the placement of Confederate symbols following the recent violence and the 2015 shootings of black parishioners at a South Carolina church.
After the vote, Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said the governor appreciates the commission’s work on the issue and still believes “that museums and historic sites are more appropriate places for these monuments.”
The 2015 law approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly essentially prohibits the permanent removal of such monuments from public property without legislative approval and restricts relocations. The law says the commission can relocate a monument to a site “of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access.”
Bentonville complies with the relocation requirement, Cooper says. On Thursday, Republican legislative leaders wrote to commission members to disagree, with the Senate’s top leader predicting that a decision to grant the request would be overturned in court.
“I think that there is confusion as to what the statute says,” said commissioner Samuel Dixon, who offered the resolution for the delay. “At this point, we’re all a neutral fact-finder.”
The only one of 10 members Friday that voted no warned the wait likely means politics will play a bigger role in what happens.
“Decisions of this sort will ultimately be made by the will of the people,” David Dennard, an East Carolina University history professor, said afterward, adding “the delay will only postpone the discussion that we should have and will prevent us from moving forward.”
The memorials at issue include a 75-foot-tall (23-meter-tall) obelisk remembering all of the state’s Confederate dead. There are also two smaller statutes.
Frank Powell with the Sons of Confederate Veterans in North Carolina said he would have preferred Cooper’s request be rejected and hoped the Civil War history group would be heard by the subcommittee. “Those memorials are to our granddaddies and great-grandfathers,” Powell said, “and so we should have a voice in any decision that’s made.”
Qasima Wideman of Durham, one of about 30 people who demonstrated outside the meeting demanding the monuments be taken down, called the delay “a cowardly decision.”
“I don’t think that you should have to think about whether you want monuments honoring people who kept other people enslaved and in chains and who fought and died for the belief to keep other people in chains,” Wideman said.
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