Monroe native wants to see Confederate monument come down

I am a son of Monroe and of Union County. I was born and raised in southern Union County, and attended Prospect Elementary, Parkwood Middle School, and Parkwood High School. On my mother’s side, my family and ancestors have lived in this area of the county for 300 years. Monroe and Union County are my home. I am proud to be from Monroe. But there is a dark mark on Monroe; the Confederate monument that sits on Main Street in front of the old courthouse.

We want to see this monument taken down.

It is ironic how and when the South has chosen to commemorate its “heritage.” The vast majority of Confederate statues and monuments were erected in two specific eras: the late 1890s-1930s and the late 1940s-1960s. In 1910, Monroe’s statue was erected, among many others, in sync with the passage of Jim Crow laws which unarguably disenfranchised African Americans. It is hard to ignore the significance of the major Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s-1960s, as well as the visible and violent opposition to the movement, which included the raising of many more Confederate statues and monuments. History is learned in textbooks and museums, but these “beacons” of white supremacy history are being placed at the footsteps of our courthouses, as it is in Monroe.

As executive director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman says that the increase in statues “…were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy”. He points to statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson being put up in 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland. Ironic since Maryland was a border state that had three times as many Union veterans as it did Confederate veterans. In 1955, one year after the Supreme Court struck down segregated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, a bronze figure of Robert E. Lee was installed in front of the then all-white Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama. Ironic timing to commemorate the veterans of a seceded state.

The Confederate monument in Monroe is a towering 40 feet in front of the courthouse. The other war memorials are the size of gravestones and WWII’s is merely a plaque. What does this communicate? Do we honor the veterans of a seceded country more than those that gave their lives to fight fascism and genocide? We can never say what the specific motive was for those engraved and for our ancestors who fought for the Confederacy; however, I am aware of my own ancestral history of slave ownership.

We do know the motive for secession. Articles of secession for several states indicate the Confederacy was founded on the idea that Black people were inferior to white people and that the enslavement of Black people by white people was the natural order. Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy in his Cornerstone speech, admits it. I know who my ancestors were, but I do not celebrate what they believed. Why should we allow this statue to celebrate it?

The Unity Monument is in Durham at Bennett Place Historical Site. This was the site of the largest troop surrender of the Civil War. When the “Unity Monument” was being planned, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) declined to participate because it was “out of harmony with the plans of the State Historical Commission to make of the unveiling a gala celebration… and glorify the spot {where the last large surrender of the war occurred.}” The UDC felt the monument as constructed constituted a “monument of defeat.” The UDC erected the Monroe statue. The UDC carefully considered the message behind these statues. The UDC has three tenants: The Confederate fight was heroic, enslaved people were happy, and slavery was not the root cause of The Civil War. What were they trying to celebrate, the veterans, or the message of the Confederacy?

This monument is a monument to white supremacy. In Monroe, on July 4, 1910 at the unveiling of the monument, Thomas Walter Bickett gave the dedication speech. Bickett, a Monroe native, was the State Attorney General at the time and would go on to become Governor in 1917. In his speech, Bickett echoes the UDC when speaking to the Confederate soldiers in the crowd and noted that, “You surrendered, but you did not quit.” Bickett goes on:

“On the smouldering ruins of a hallowed past the southern man…began to build anew…they stood for a white civilization and a white race, and today North Carolina holds in trust for the safety of the nation the purest Anglo-Saxon blood to be found on the American shores. And the nation is beginning to realize how well you served it when, in the hour of utter desolation you refused to be defiled.”

“…The Fifteenth Amendment was the most colossal blunder and crime in the history of the civilized world.”

“Everywhere the people are beginning to recognize that the South, and only the South, is competent to deal with the race question…”

In allowing this statue to stand, we allow the words it was commemorated with to stand. Words of white supremacy.

These events happened, and these people existed. We are not removing these monuments to change or erase history. To frame this movement as people looking to change history is at best an innocent misunderstanding and at worst an insidious straw man argument. History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were, and we will know which states seceded from the Union and their intentions in doing so. We must change what we CELEBRATE. Text books and museums are for education, statues are for celebration. In celebrating those memorialized, we celebrate what they stood for. Ironic that we celebrate the secessionists with a 40 foot tower, but not the Union that we live in today. In Germany, there are no recognized monuments or statues for the Nazi regime. There are no German slogans declaring “heritage not hate.” Instead what you will find are monuments, memorials, and museums dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. They have reckoned with their ugly history to ensure it is not celebrated nor repeated.

We must also consider the perspective of our Black brothers and sisters. Through numerous conversations with people of color and their regards towards Confederate monuments, these public monuments act as a celebration of their oppressors. We should listen to and take seriously the voices of our Black neighbors. How can we pretend to honor our ancestors, but ignore those of whom our ancestors owned?

Confederate monuments are coming down and places are being renamed. In Asheville, Raleigh, Salisbury, Wilmington, and many other North Carolina cities, these monuments to white supremacy are being removed from the public square. We should join these cities in removing our very public monument out of our public square. Monroe has a rich history that can be celebrated. Monroe can proudly claim Robert F. Williams, who was an author and a civil rights pioneer. Walter P. Carter was also a civil rights leader from Monroe. Ironically, he is memorialized widely across Baltimore, MD where he did much of his work, but has no recognition in his hometown of Monroe. Dr. Christine Mann Darden, a daughter of Monroe and alumna of the Winchester Avenue school, is one of four women featured in the book Hidden Figures. She was pivotal in America’s race to the moon, defeating the Russians in the same race. The Freedom Riders came through Monroe in 1961. Visitors are ignorant of these individuals’ heritage in Monroe, because they are not memorialized in any way. We are showing missed opportunities to choose who and what we celebrate. If we want to use statues as milestones of history, how many other important figures are being ignored?

If monuments reveal what ideals are treasured, then perhaps it is time to reevaluate our priorities. Our priorities show the celebration of a secessionist country that existed for less than five years. There have been over 1,500 Confederate statues, a number that far out-numbers monuments dedicated to the Revolutionary War that created the United States. Again, our WWII monument is a plaque; a war that unarguably demonstrates the American effort in saving the free world.

Commissioners, I wholeheartedly believe, like I trust that you do, that in the here and now we must continue to address current causes of racial inequality such as the lack of economic and educational opportunity in the Black community compared to that of largely white communities. But I also wholeheartedly believe that we need to remove symbols that celebrate white supremacy.

We can start by removing this monument.

Jordan Britton

549 Bluestone Rd.

Durham, NC 27713