A panel of Gaston County residents voted 7-5 Monday to remove a Confederate monument that has stood in front of the county courthouse for 88 years. The vote came after heated debate over whether the statue represents white supremacy.
County commissioners created the Council of Understanding in hopes that six people who wanted to keep the monument in place and six who wanted to move it could come to consensus on its future.
Last week, during the council’s first meeting, several members voiced hopes for unity. But members remained sharply divided at the third meeting Monday, when County Commissioner Tom Keigher called for a vote.
He said after hearing members talk, "I don’t see any purpose in delaying what we’ve been asked to do."
At that point, several members had reiterated the views they came in with.
Bill Starnes is a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans and a longtime defender of the monument. He said people who believe the Civil War was about slavery and the monument represents racism are just wrong.
He called those who disagreed with him by name, saying they're intelligent but "wrong on history."
"That Confederate soldier out there was not fighting for slavery," Starnes said.
D’Andre Nixon came to the panel as an opponent of the monument and said he remains one.
" 'Cause me, a black male, 27 years old, that Confederate statue, every time I walk in here -- regardless of whether it’s a speeding ticket or I’m just here to check on my aunt -- that does not make me feel good," Nixon said. "That constantly reminds me of slavery."
Cheryl Comer, a lawyer who argued forcefully for removing the monument, was even more blunt: "If you are a supporter of that statue, there’s no way around it: You are a supporter of white supremacy."
That drew a heated response from Ed Smith, a retired history professor.
"I want that statue to stay there because it is of a 17-year-old boy who had nothing to do with slavery, who fought for his family and fought for his people," Smith said. "I resent you telling me I’m a white supremacist because I want to keep that statue there."
Keigher, who chaired the panel as a non-voting member, said he also found Comer’s statement unfair.
Earlier in the meeting, Jim Stewart proposed an alternative he said he hoped would please both sides. Stewart, a Salvation Army board member, suggested altering the base of the monument to remove references to the Confederacy and replace it with references to all branches of the military.
"Everybody talks about unity," Stewart said, "but let’s see if we can really come together and do something worthwhile for the community."
But no one else picked up on that suggestion. When Keigher called for a vote, Stewart joined four others in voting to keep the monument in place. But the sixth pro-monument appointee, Moises Miranda, announced he had changed his view. He’s a real estate broker who came to the area from Cuba, and said he was proud to be part of the process.
"We can make the difference," he said. "And I am in favor for the statue to be removed."
The Council of Understanding’s 7-5 recommendation to relocate the monument will go to county commissioners, probably at their July 28 meeting. The council called for moving the statue to a new, undetermined location.
The memorial was constructed in 1912, outside the old county courthouse in the heart of downtown Gastonia. It’s been moved once before, when the county built a new courthouse on the northern edge of downtown.
Gaston County Attorney Jonathan Sink told the panel he doesn’t think a 2015 state law on monuments allows the statue to be moved, and if so, he says it has to go to a place of similar access and prominence. That, too, was a topic of debate, with several council members noting that other counties in North Carolina are removing and relocating their Confederate memorials.