PITTSBORO — A Superior Court judge cleared the way for Chatham County to remove its Confederate statue from the courthouse square after a roughly three-hour hearing Wednesday morning.
County commissioners have given County Manager Dan LaMontagne the authority to take whatever steps he deems necessary for removing the statue, Chatham County Commissioner Jim Crawford said. A court injunction had blocked that from happening, but Superior Court Judge Susan Bray lifted the injunction Wednesday.
Attorneys for the Winnie Davis Chapter of the N.C. United Daughters of the Confederacy failed to prove there would be "irreparable harm" if the monument were removed pending a decision about whether the county is allowed to do that under state law, Bray said.
Bray scheduled a hearing into whether the UDC's lawsuit should be dismissed for Dec. 2.
At issue is whether the monument was a gift to Chatham County, making it a public monument protected under a 2015 state law, or a private monument owned by the UDC, which could be removed.
The county attorney has said the 1907 license that allowed the UDC to erect the monument can be revoked. The license does not say whether the monument is a gift but leaves it "in the care and keeping of the said Daughters of the Confederacy."
The Chatham County commissioners voted 4-1 in August to give the UDC until Oct. 1 to come up with a plan for the statue and to set a Nov. 1 deadline for the county to take action if the UDC didn't move it. Barbara Pugh, president of the local UDC chapter, asked the county for a 60-day extension in September but was rebuffed.
Crawford noted after the hearing that the UDC could have worked with the county over the summer. However, Pugh, after signing an agreement to work with the county to reimagine the statue as a monument to all Chatham County veterans, rejected that option.
"It's not happy business, honestly," Crawford said. "It would have been nice if they had lived by the (memorandum of understanding) to reimagine it honestly and openly, and that's where we would have been instead of this. Now we're in a position where it's a lot harder to find a resolution between the parties, but it'll come."
James Davis, a Forsyth County attorney representing the UDC and three Chatham County residents -- Pugh, Gene Brooks and Thomas Clegg -- asked the judge to decide if the county owns the statue, and if it does, if state law prohibits its removal from the courthouse.
The issue is not racism or what the statue represents, Davis said.
"This lawsuit was brought because the county was trying to do what the General Assembly says you will not do," he said.
Davis unsuccessfully tried to argue that Chatham for All and the NAACP were not in a legal position to challenge the UDC's request to stop the statue's removal. The county's decision to remove the statue is unfair to his clients, who are descended from Confederate soldiers, and unfair to those residents who don't support its removal, he added.
"All we see is a piling on of litigants who are appropriately represented by their county commissioners," he said.
Attorney Phillip Harris, representing Chatham for All and the NAACP, addressed the concern about fairness, saying "the equities here are removal of a statue to be placed elsewhere vs. continuing to walk by a statue that celebrates slavery, that celebrates the Confederacy on a daily basis."
"I know this is something that gets contentious," Harris said. "There's people who really want to rewrite history and make history in a way that for whatever reason makes them feel better. The bottom line is I don't want to walk by this statue anymore and neither do my clients."
The debate has brought local and out-of-state statue supporters and opponents to Pittsboro every Saturday since the board's decision. Confederate flags also have been raised just outside of town and in front of Horton Middle School, a formerly all-black school named for local slave and poet George Moses Horton.
Last week, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law joined the fight, filing a motion on behalf of the West Chatham Branch of the NAACP and Chatham for All. The motion counters the UDC's claims and defends the county's decision to remove the monument.
It notes that protests by groups in support of and opposed to the monument have cost the county more than $103,000 for additional security, resulted in at least eight arrests, and created "an unsafe and dangerous condition."
The NAACP and Chatham for All have worked for years to have the statue removed from the courthouse grounds.
Carl Thompson Sr., a Chatham resident and member of both groups, said he was "elated" with the judge's decision. It has put the county in a position to do what it needs to do, he said.
"There are too many people in this county that that statue does not speak for, and therefore it should not be in that place," Thompson said. "I think it's a valuable historical relic, and it should be placed in a place where those kinds of relics, those kinds of representations of history and artifacts should be, which is a museum."
(c)2019 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.