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Gaston's Monument Panel Begins With Debate On History, Race And Law

Ann Doss Helms
"Sheriff's line" tape blocks the Confederate monument outside the Gaston County Courthouse Tuesday.

There was a lot of talk about unity and common ground at the first meeting of Gaston’s Council of Understanding, but sharp differences emerged, too. Twelve volunteers gathered to hear each other’s views of the towering Confederate monument that stands outside the courthouse where they met.

Credit Gaston County Museum
Gaston County Museum
Jason Luker

Jason Luker, director of Gaston County’s history museum, said documents from the time make the meaning clear: "The belief in white supremacy is interwoven into the history of this monument."

To illustrate, Luker read from a speech given when the cornerstone was laid in 1912. State Attorney General T.W. Bickett spoke about the legacy of Confederate veterans: "They stood for the integrity of a whole civilization, a white race. Today, North Carolina holds in trust for the safety of the nation the purest Anglo-Saxon blood to be found on the American shores"

Some panelists took exception to the way the Confederacy is being depicted, in Gastonia and across the country. Eric Riley, a contractor and lifelong Gaston County resident, said demonizing Confederates and slave-owners overlooks the racism that pervaded the entire nation at that time.

"But the racism issue is always laid at the feet of the South. Always," Riley said. "My kids, your kids, everybody’s kids in this room are being taught that your ancestors and the people that were born in the South are racist scum and they need to be wiped off the face of the earth."

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
The Council of Understanding met with desks spaced for coronavirus safety and a very limited audience.

James Muhammad, a Gastonia radio host and middle school teacher, is one of four African Americans on the panel. He said the monument is divisive and children are watching to see how adults handle it.

"And if we continue to let our communities be divided – over something that is definitely dividing us – then shame on us," Muhammad said.

Gaston County Attorney Jonathan Sink opened the meeting by saying state law allows memorials to be relocated only if there’s a safety concern or something like construction that requires temporary removal. And he said that law requires that any new site offer similar access and prominence.

Cheryl Comer, a lawyer and the only woman on the panel, challenged that interpretation of the law. She said the monument offends her as a black woman, and its removal should be a first step toward addressing widespread racism.

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Council of Understanding members Thomas Gillespie (left) and Jim Stewart talk during get-acquainted time at the council's first meeting.

"Why are we here? Is this just an exercise?" Comer asked. "Or is this a true opportunity for us to look at our county and move away from white supremacy and be inclusive and diverse and put systems in place to change?"

County commissioners, who control the courthouse and the monument, appointed the the Council of Understanding to advise them on next steps. Officials expect the group to meet three or four more times, then vote on a recommendation to county commissioners. Commissioner Tom Keigher said if a majority agree the memorial should be moved, commissioners – or even the advisory group – could ask legislators for a local bill that would allow that.