‘More unified community’: Council members say community-led deal to move ‘Fame’ positive for city

Published 12:10 am Sunday, June 14, 2020

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — Retired Catawba College history professor Gary Freeze says we have not forsaken our past.

“We have redirected how we talk about it and how we view it,” Freeze said hours after the city of Salisbury announced it was working on a deal to relocate the “Fame” Confederate monument.

Across the nation, protests regarding racial inequality and police violence following the death of George Floyd and other black Americans has led to the relocation or, in some cases, toppling of Confederate statues. And in turn, local leaders have taken heed to the calls to re-examine controversial relics of the past, including the city of Salisbury.

On Friday, Mayor Karen Alexander said a community-led deal to relocate the “Fame” Confederate statue was in the works. While the city hasn’t directly spoken with the United Daughters of the Confederation, which owns the statue, a community member has been in contact with the UDC. One location being discussed is a cemetery in the 500 block of North Lee Street, which has tombstones for Confederate soldiers. Alexander said that site was suggested by people who are heirs to the original UDC members who raised funds for the statue.

The agreement still needs to be signed and approved by the Salisbury City Council, which meets on Tuesday. Alexander said she hopes the process can be conducted in a way that the community agrees upon without the need for litigation.

The latest in a number of rounds of debate over the location of “Fame” reignited recently with swaths of the community calling the monument a public safety issue after a man fired gunshots into the air on May 31 during a protest to honor Floyd and other black Americans who have been killed because of injustice. Jeffrey Long has since been charged with firing those shots and other crimes.

Police used tear gas and riot gear the following night to disperse a crowd protesting near the statue. A man threw a rock through the window of the Salisbury Post. Harvey Lee McCorkle III has since been charged in that incident.

A recent city council discussion, including public comments, spanned nearly two hours of a meeting on June 2. More than a dozen locals voiced their support for relocating the statue. Additionally, two Salisbury High School alumnae recently created a petition to relocate the statue that has amassed more than 7,000 signatures.

Freeze said Salisbury is part of a national wave and “part of a greater story” times that pushes people to take action due to the overall love for the community. In Salisbury’s case, the idea that the “Fame” Confederate statue posed a safety issue “tipped the balance,” he said. Freeze said the statue has become less about its artistic value and more of a reminder of “what we must face up to.”

“The issues matter more than the metal,” he said. “And for a lot of us, the metal mattered more in the past.”

He said, unlike other cities across the nation, Salisbury is “distinctive” in its potential decision to relocate the statue where it can be fully understood and appreciated in the full scope of its historical context — rather than just outright removed.

Though an official plan to relocate the statue hasn’t yet reached the Salisbury City Council for a vote, council members say the process of the community coming together to work out the details is a “positive thing.”

Council member David Post has made his stance on the statue’s location known, with the latest declaration being a column published in the Salisbury Post. He said he’s opposed to the “Fame” statue because “it’s wrong.”

“Confederate monuments are racist symbols, erected to intimidate slaves and to honor those who enslaved,” Post said in the column June 7 (“Legal considerations complicate removal of ‘Fame’”). “Those who believe Confederate monuments should be preserved as ‘history’ refuse to recognize that, to many, history means slavery and Jim Crow, not a history to embrace or to perpetuate.”

But Post said the driving forces behind the potential agreement to relocate the statue is the risk of litigation and the risk of the statue being torn down. Both are “very divisive,” he said. He added that it’s important for the vote from the City Council to be unanimous in the decision. He believes it will be.

Council members told the Post the potential move is a “positive thing” for Salisbury because it brings about more unity.

“Anytime a community can work toward being a more unified community is a positive thing,” said council member Tamara Sheffield. “It’s promising that there is dialogue happening.”

Council member Brian Miller echoed the remark that “it’s a positive thing,” and added that he looks forward to having that discussion with other council members if and when presented with the agreement.

Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins initiated a push to revisit the conversation surrounding the statue’s location during the June 2 City Council meeting, saying it was a public safety issue and a “lightning rod” in the community. Especially with the national climate and movements happening across the nation, “we need to protect the citizens of Salisbury,” Heggins told the Post.

She added that the community discussion and collaboration is good, and listening to community voices is what local government is supposed to do.

Sheffield also noted the statue’s location was a “huge safety issue” in the middle of the street and that, as an elected official, she has an obligation to citizens “to ensure we have a safe environment.” She added that she understands people are concerned with the representation of history, but that the statue should be in a location where all of the historical context can be understood and appreciated.

The local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy has not publicly commented on the deal, but a news release by the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans on Saturday declared “in the strongest language that it will stand with its sisters in the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other veterans’ groups, and with the two-thirds of all Tar Heel citizens — in every poll — who strongly oppose taking down and removing memorials to our ancestors who fought and died for our state in the War Between the States.”

The statement noted action by city governments in cities including Salisbury “giving in to the violent Marxist mobs” and said the Sons of Confederate Veterans would use everything in its power — financially, legally and politically — “to oppose this ‘domestic Taliban’ of mindless and destructive hatred.”

The most recent debate, though, is not the first. The statue has, for years, been a flashpoint.

A 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, prompted a nationwide debate about Confederate symbols because of beliefs espoused by the shooter online. The city debated moving the monument then but took no action.

After the statue was twice vandalized with paint in August 2018 and March 2019, another debate arose about its removal, including a public meeting that drew a crowd of attendees. While the city attempted to organize a discussion at that time about the statue’s relocation, Confederate groups refused to take part. No person has been charged in either vandalism incident.

Those who support the relocation from the current spot cite it as a symbol of racism and white supremacy that better serves its historic purpose in a cemetery or museum. Proponents of the current location, such as the Fame Preservation Group, declare it synonymous with downtown Salisbury, and revere it as a memorial of history.

The statue was dedicated in 1909.

One year earlier, on Aug. 5, 1908, the city reportedly gave land ownership under the statue to the UDC when Salisbury’s then-Board of Aldermen OK’d a resolution giving the UDC rights to the land on West Innes Street. It wasn’t until 1927 when that vote was officially recorded by a document signed by former Mayor A.H. Boyden.

The document states “that said site shall be used perpetually for said monument, and shall be under the care of said Robert F. Hoke Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy, and its successors, from generation to generation, subject to such rules and regulations, as may be prescribed by said chapter and approved by the Board of Aldermen of the city of Salisbury.”

Moving forward, Freeze said the relocation of “Fame” can allow the community to face its “multi-faceted heritage.” By that, he said, it’s time to explore black lives and deal with racial profiling and other race issues as they are different today than they were in the past.

“Salisbury is no longer the town it once was,” Freeze said, adding that “this is cultural inclusion that tips the scale toward a better future.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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