Months after ‘temporary’ removal, Wilmington’s Confederate monuments remain in limbo

The future of Wilmington confederate monuments still in limbo

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Confederate monuments have become a flashpoint for protesters following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last summer. In response to the unrest, cities, states, and counties across the nation removed some of these symbols.

In Wilmington, two confederate monuments were removed in the middle of the night, but unlike some cities, Wilmington’s monument removal, at least for the time being, is still considered temporary.

That’s because of a state law that restricts the removal of such monuments and statues which was passed relatively recently.

“A North Carolina law, adopted in 2015 and codified as North Carolina General Statute (G.S.) § 100-2.1, requires that objects of remembrance on public property cannot be removed or relocated except in certain circumstances,” according to a UNC School of Government article on the topic.

While the law technically does cover all monuments on public property, for the most part, it has been applied to Confederate monuments, which are numerous across the state.

“The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has compiled a database listing 121 North Carolina Civil War Monuments, identifying the monument, location, and date of dedication,” according to UNC SOG.

According to the database, 29 Civil War monuments have been removed in the state, it is worth noting that not all of the removed monuments were done so recently.

When protesters began calling for the removal of these monuments, some cities acted despite the state law, voting to remove statues from public property.

The City of Wilmington similarly removed two monuments, one of George Davis, and another memorial to the soldiers of the Confederacy. At the state level, Governor Roy Cooper ordered the removal of Confederate monuments from the Capitol Building.

Although the law does protect monuments and memorials, there are a few reasons that it does allow for the removal of a monument -- one of those exceptions is for public safety.

“The limits on removal and relocation do not apply to ‘[a]n object of remembrance for which a building inspector or similar official has determined poses a threat to public safety because of an unsafe or dangerous condition,’” according to the SOG.

The threat to public safety was cited as the reason the City of Wilmington removed the monuments and although they called the decision temporary, after roughly eight months, the statues are still under cover.

“Right now our main issue, and it has been our main issue and the reason why the monuments came down was for public safety. We saw, in the summer months, there were several attempts to deface the monuments, we had police officers guarding them at some point in time and we just felt that it was a public safety concern,” Saffo said.

A ‘temporary’ removal

On June 25, 2020, the City of Wilmington posted several times on Twitter explaining why they removed the statues, and said the removal was only temporary.

“In accordance with NC law, the city has temporarily removed two monuments from the downtown area. This was done in order to protect the public safety and to preserve important historical artifacts … While members of the community have expressed a desire to see these monuments moved for many years, recent protests and controversy over these monuments has grown to a point that the monuments, in their original locations, were a threat to public safety,” the thread reads.

Although the city said the move was temporary, it has been months since the monuments were removed and questions as to if and when they city will put them back remain. According to the city, the statues continue to pose a threat.

“Exercising its best judgment based on a reasonable assessment of current events and state law, the city maintains that the social and political climate remains highly volatile and objects of such controversy within this climate pose an ongoing threat to public safety,” a Wilmington spokesperson said in a statement to WECT.

That’s why the bases to the statues remain – and will remain until city council makes an official decision.

Members of the North Carolina NAACP have planned a “Protect the People” Moral Monday protest against legislation that protects Confederate memorials.  (Source: WECT)
Members of the North Carolina NAACP have planned a “Protect the People” Moral Monday protest against legislation that protects Confederate memorials.  (Source: WECT)

“Those bases will remain there until we make the final decision, and that decision is going to be based a lot on what our city attorney advises, and then ultimately, what the city council makes a final determination on as to how we handle these monuments moving forward,” Saffo said.

While many people think it is an easy decision to make, ongoing legal cases have the City of Wilmington in a holding pattern.

“Several hurdles prevent a quick and easy resolution to this matter. The General Assembly has restricted the ability of local governments to permanently relocate objects of remembrance, while active litigation in state courts and potential legislation lend further uncertainty to applicable state laws,” according to the city’s statement.

Although the move was deemed ‘temporary’ it has been several months since the statues came down, and it could be some time before their fate is determined since the city is waiting for rulings from the courts in other instances.

“We’ve asked our city attorney to take a look at that active litigation for putting statues up and taking them down, as those court cases move through the system our city attorney will be advising us and giving us, hopefully good advice, as to what we can and cannot do and we will take appropriate action based on a lot of the opinions he will give us,” Saffo said.

When asked for his personal opinion on whether or not the monuments belong in Wilmington in such prominent locations, Saffo said his opinion did not matter in this and it would be up to city council.

“That’s a decision that the council is going to make, my opinion is irrelevant in this particular decision. This will be a council decision that the community will have an opportunity to hear what we have to say and how we’re going to make that decision ... I hope that we’ll come together at some point in time and make that decision, sooner rather than later,” Saffo said.

The mayor might not be ready to make his thoughts on the monuments public, others have voiced their opinions both in favor of, and against the removal of the statues.

“Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) supports the lawful and safe removal of the George Davis monument at Third and Market as well as the Wilmington Confederate monument at Third and Dock. These artworks do not represent the values of the City of Wilmington or this organization. It is HWF’s hope that the monuments will be relocated to a location where they may be preserved, interpreted, contextualized, and used expressly for educational purposes, rather than to continue to serve as visual public reminders of racial injustice,” former executive director of HWF Beth Rutledge said in an emailed statement last year.

The entire City of Wilmington’s official statement on the monuments can be found below:

“Wilmington is one of many communities seeking to protect public safety while also working within applicable state laws that preserve objects of remembrance.

Several times in recent years, objects of remembrance related to the former Confederacy and other historical events have become flash points of controversy. Rallies have at times led to injury or even death, as crowds toppled and destroyed statues and altercations became violent. Beginning in June 2020, nationwide protests and rallies for social and racial justice renewed attention on the controversy surrounding certain objects of remembrance. Unfortunately, some of these also involved episodes of violence that endangered public safety.

In view of these facts, the City of Wilmington removed two statues from city property into temporary storage on June 25, 2020, citing safety and preservation concerns. Exercising its best judgment based on a reasonable assessment of current events and state law, the city maintains that the social and political climate remains highly volatile and objects of such controversy within this climate pose an ongoing threat to public safety.

Several hurdles prevent a quick and easy resolution to this matter. The General Assembly has restricted the ability of local governments to permanently relocate objects of remembrance, while active litigation in state courts and potential legislation lend further uncertainty to applicable state laws.

The City Attorney’s office will continue to monitor the evolving legal context for objects of remembrance until such a time as it can recommend options for permanent resolution, and the city will continue to exercise its best judgment to ensure public safety. At this time, city management believes the most prudent course of action is for the statues to remain in storage in accordance with the law and in the interest of public safety.”

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