Skip to main content

Law preserves monument unless …


Isaac Groves   | Times-News

GRAHAM — State law prevents the county from moving the Confederate monument on Court Square, but that hasn’t kept other monuments around the state from moving.

“All the politics around all this — that matters a lot more than the law,” said Eric Fink, assistant professor at the Elon University School of Law.

Fink, who said he has been to Graham a lot because of the monument controversy, agreed with County Attorney Clyde Albright’s interpretation of N.C. General Statute 100-2.1, the 2015 state law restricting when and why monuments and artworks can be relocated. But, Fink said, there is always more to the law than the words in the statutes.

Based on the Alamance County Board of Commissioners’ minutes from 1914, Albright told the commissioners the county accepted the statue from the Graham Daughters of the Confederacy and contributed money to have it mounted on its pedestal, which sits on land the county owns in front of the Historic Courthouse.

Questions have been raised about whether it sits on county property and about the ownership of 106-year-old statue, but according to Graham City Manager Frankie Maness, it is not the property of the City of Graham or the N.C. Department of Transportation, which narrows it down. And Michael Graves, a long-time opponent of the monument, said his conversations with the Daughters of the Confederacy convinced him the statue belongs to the county.

More: 183 continue push for Confederate statue relocation

That means the county’s rights are limited where the monument is concerned. It can be moved permanently, but only to a “place of similar prominence” in the same jurisdiction, meaning the equivalent of the front of a courthouse in Alamance County. It specifically prohibits putting it in a museum.

“Part of the problem with it is its prominence,” said Amy Galey, chair of commissioners, “and the law requires us to move it to a place of equal prominence, so that problem is intractable really because any place we could move it to that would be of equal prominence would also be offensive to people of color and others.”

The law allows these monuments to be moved temporarily under some circumstances, like making room during construction, say to widen the road or, as was done in 1922, to build a bigger courthouse. Or to protect or preserve the monument, say if it were in need of repair or at risk from extreme weather — or vandalism.

Of course, monuments have been removed from their places of prominence. In Winston-Salem, the monument wasn’t public property, so the law didn’t apply. In Pittsboro, the statue was on public property, but, according to The (Raleigh) News & Observer, the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy had the statue in front of the Chatham County Courthouse under a county license, which a court decided meant it was the UDC’s to keep and, most importantly, the county’s to return.

That ended months of tense demonstrations and counter-demonstrations drawing some extreme, and sometimes armed, activists to Pittsboro, which brings to mind the public-safety exemption. These kinds or rules are generally to protect the public from having a statue or other protected historic object in disrepair fall on someone, Adam Lovelady, a professor at the UNC School of Government, said in a 2017 blog post. But since then, Charlottesville people are also arguing it includes the danger of violence between protesters and supporters.

The City of Lexington argues in its ongoing lawsuit against Davidson County to force the removal of a Confederate monument in the city, according to the Lexington Dispatch.

Fink is of two minds about this approach. It’s hard to argue that constitutionally protected speech is a threat. But, he said, he’s spent a lot of time in Graham and seen demonstrations and counter-protesters confront each other, and it’s a volatile situation.

The courts have not weighed in on the law so far, either, Fink said, and lawyers could make a variety of arguments, like having such a monument in front of a courthouse violates the civil rights of African-Americans going there to seek justice. Of course there is no guarantee a court would accept that argument.

While local governments cite the law a lot, the state hasn’t enforced it aggressively, Fink said.

“The law was passed for political reasons,” Fink said, “but I’m not sure that anyone is interested in using the law.”

One reason for that is the state’s current governor and attorney general don’t support it, Fink said, which goes back to the idea that the politics carry more weight than the statute.

“My sense is that under this North Carolina statute, if a local government really wants to move it, they can,” Fink said.

Though it seems like Alamance County government wouldn’t move the monument if the law did allow it.

“This law was made to protect our history and our memorials,” Albright said. “There’s more to it than the people who are against it want to believe.”

“When you tear down your past, you’re destined to repeat it,” Commissioner Steve Carter said. “I don’t think anyone here wants to go back to where we were in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

More: Leave monument alone, Alamance commissioners say