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Gaston County Commission To Push For Referendum On Monument

A majority of Gaston County commissioners Tuesday night agreed to seek legislative approval to let citizens vote whether to remove a Confederate monument outside the county courthouse. The move followed a public hearing where most speakers favored removal.   

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Some heated discussions took place by the Confederate monument in Gastonia on Tuesday.

Tensions have been high recently over what to do with the monument and over the broader issue of systemic racism in the county. A volunteer panel of residents appointed by the commission voted 7-5 two weeks ago to remove the statue of a Confederate soldier that was erected in 1912. 

Of the 23 residents who spoke at the hearing, 15 urged commissioners to remove the monument, many arguing that it's a symbol of white supremacy and oppression of Black people. 

"I don't think that the question should be why we want the statue removed, but the question should be when and what time is it being removed," said Sierra Hall. 

Wendy Rayfield of Dallas said: "We do not need a monument glorifying the Confederacy at the entrance to our house of justice. This has for too long intimidated many of our citizens, as it was originally intended to when first erected to uphold the Jim Crow laws a century ago." 

Darial Jackson said he represented a coalition of clergy and citizens called GC3. He called for moving the statue to a more appropriate location where its history could be better told in context.

"By no means are we seeking to erase history," Jackson said. "It is imperative that we understand history. … It was not until 1912, almost a half of a century after the Civil War and (in) the midst of the implementation of Jim Crow laws across the South that the statue was placed in front of  our courtrhouse. It belongs elsewhere."

Voices Of Support

Most of the rest of the speakers argued for keeping it. It's a not a negative symbol, they said, but a monument to an important part of Gaston County's history. 

Steve Brown of Shelby wanted to keep it as a place for families to pay respect to the Confederate soldiers who never returned from the war. 

"These families once a year, during Confederate Memorial Memorial Day on May the 10th, and their descendants, can come and pay respect and remembrance to their ancestors because they don't know where they're buried. They're in mass graves from here to Richmond," Brown said. 

Gastonia native Brad Clery asked the board to keep the statute, saying those who want the statue removed are a minority.

"If you allow a small group to take control and remove things that offend them, then you open the floodgates to have anything removed. I'm asking you as a Christian do not move this monument," he said. “What will happen when an anti-religious group is offended by everything Christian demands God be removed?" 

What To Do Next

After the speakers finished, commissioners discussed what to do next. Commissioner Bob Hovis proposed continuing discussions at the board's next meeting Aug. 11. But board chair Tracy Philbeck argued for letting citizens vote in a referendum whether to keep the statue. 

"If we do that, there is not one citizen in Gaston County who can say their voice was not heard," Philbeck said. "They cannot say it was the politics of this board, whether the makeup was Democrat or Republican."  

Philbeck said the county would need the legislature's approval to hold a vote, and said the board should direct its attorney to ask local lawmakers to file such a bill. 

No vote was taken, but in the end, vice chair Jack Brown and commissioners Allen Fraley and Chad Brown told Philbeck they agreed with a referendum.  Commissioners Bob Hovis, Ronnie Worley and Tom Keigher opposed the idea.

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Scotty Reid of Mount Holly talks about his family's history in Gaston County.

The Scene Outside

While the meeting went on inside the courthouse, dozens of demonstraters gathered outside. Officers steered those supporting the monument to one side of it and opponents to the other. 

Scotty Reid of Mount Holly talked about his family's history in Gaston County and why the memorial is offensive to Black residents.

"That’s a beacon, OK? That’s signaling to the rest of the United States that white supremacists is safe here in Gaston County," he said, using a microphone to carry his voice to demonstrators on the other side.

Many of the people supporting the monument arrived as a group on motorcycles, carrying Confederate and Trump flags and wearing Sons of Confederate Veterans apparel. When Reid and his daughter, Kaily Reid, spoke from the other side, they chanted "USA!" and "Go home!"

Reid said it makes no sense for people celebrating the Confederacy, which fought to secede from the United States, to call themselves patriots. He said his group only wants to see the monument moved to a more appropriate location, not destroyed.

Although, Reid told the other side, "We could get enough people out here to where they could give me time to climb it and take my hammer out my pocket and bust it down."

That has been one of the fears of county officials, who have seen Confederate statues around the state and the nation vandalized and torn down by protesters. Worley, who has called for moving it, says the cost of paying overtime for security is wasting taxpayer money.

By the time the meeting ended some three hours later, a much smaller group was left outside. They spilled onto Martin Luther King Way, the street that separates the Confederate monument from a memorial to King on the other side of the street.

Credit Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Philip Burton (left) talks with people who want to keep the monument in place.

Some supporters -- who declined to give names because, according to one person, they don't trust news media -- said if the Confederate monument is removed, people will take down the King memorial too.

"If they move that monument it’s going to cause a lot more problems. They ain’t enough Gaston County cops out here to deal with this if that comes down," one woman said.

Philip Burton, who said he’s a longtime Gaston County resident, stayed late trying to find common ground with that group – but also to explain the Black perspective. He was skeptical of putting the decision to the voters of the county.

"I don’t think a referendum would do it," Burton said. "Because at the end of the day if it doesn’t represent pure love, then why are we keeping it?"

One thing Burton and some of the people he was talking with agreed on: Gaston County has a lot of work left to do.

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.