A Conversation with the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials
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A Conversation with the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials

Gunther Peck: Before I introduce the really
wonderful speakers we have, I do want to just offer a couple comments about I think why
and how challenging this topic is, and of course, that’s why many of you are here. Remembering
White Supremacy implies a couple of things, which are not true. First of all, that people
remember white supremacy as a thing in the past, which it is not. The second point I
want to begin with is the history of white supremacy has always been revisionist. The
monuments that went up were themselves a part of a revisionist historical project. So how
we remember the past, really this is a key part of what we want, why we have this convening
today. We have three members of the Durham Planning Commission and their purpose was
to figure out how the Confederate Monument that went down basically should be – what
should happen to it. Robin Kirk: Our committee was actually a joint
City-County committee and it was in part convened by our mayor, Steve Schewel and also by our
county commissioners, led by the chair of the county commissioners, Ms.Wendy Jacobs.
I just wanted to clarify. Gunther: In light of the recommendations,
if you would break it down, what your process was to reach that top recommendation. Charmaine McKissick-Melton: Robin and I got
together immediately. We’ve known each other for a while and have worked on other reconciliation
type things with Greensboro and the Nazi-Klan piece many years ago. So one of our tenets
from the very beginning was to make sure we got as many diverse voices in the process
as possible. The committee were five volunteers from the city, five volunteers from the county,
five of the county and the city. Robin and I – our only input was really just to say
yeah looks like a diverse group of people, age, gender, you name it. And after that,
we discussed where we would literally have them. We wanted to make sure that the process
was as open as possible so we talked about having them at the city and the county so
that we would have the ability to do streaming and so forth and there would be also police.
Most of the other meetings were held primarily in public libraries around Durham County.
All of the meetings that were in the city and the county chambers, we did not have the
facilitated discussion like the focus group kind of work, but all of them that were in
the community were. And that is really where we gathered the core of our input for making
these final decisions about – or recommendations I should say – recommendations about what
should be done. Deondra Rose: I represented the city side
and so I think the thing that stood out for me from the beginning was just the diversity
of experience on the committee in terms of the various members, and so there were many
different perspectives that people brought to bear. And so, you know, for me just seeing
the discussions unfold and noting that there were a few times that got a little tense and
I think that just watching Charmaine and Robin handle those especially tense members, as
a member of the committee, I just will constantly and forever appreciate their leadership because
I think that when you get issues that are so fraught with emotion and fraught with a
lot of contestation about how about how we define the central concepts that we’re talking
about, you know there’s lots of opportunity for things to get out of hand. They did a
really good job of making sure that it didn’t. Robin: I’ll just add that we made it very
clear at the very beginning that the job of the committee was not to decide what was right
or wrong about how the statue came down and that was I think an important just point to
say to people that we weren’t going to argue about that. So I’m going to actually talk
about that right now. I’ve been holding back a lot. But I will say that one of the important
framing things about this is that on the one hand, we have a North Carolina state law that
prevents counties or cities or municipalities from doing anything to change historical monuments
right now and that’s a very limiting factor in how we discussed what we could potentially
do. I mean we certainly could have said to the city and county you know, take it all
away, but we would have known that that was politically not feasible given the fact that
there is a law. It was passed in 2015 by our General Assembly and we got the legal advice
that Durham was in kind of an interesting position on this because the law didn’t speak
to damaged memorials. But it was our sense that neither the city nor the county really
had the appetite to start a big legal battle, so understanding the political kind of state
of play was really important. I think the thing I would say about how the statue came
down – whether or not you support that – what that did was sort of short circuit a community
discussion about what should be the fate of the statue and I think one of the things that
people again and again really appreciated about our process was they got a chance to
talk and they knew that they were heard. I think that in the end, part of the thinking
about that first recommendation was that this was a deeply educational process, not only
for ourselves as members of the committee but for the public which you know there are
people on both sides of that issue or all sides of this issue that know a lot about
it, bit I would say the majority of people in Durham County don’t know that much about
this and they hadn’t really thought about it. And the removal of the statue, again regardless
of what you think about that, gave us a great opportunity to open up some of these issues
and really have a public discussion that was then I think hopefully helpful. Gunther: I want to hear a little bit more
about the difficulty in the conversation and what you heard. If there were a specific moment
or two that where those conflicts were visible and vivid and maybe describe one of them and
how you felt, as well as what you learned? Charmaine: I think we all have stories of
sitting at various tables during the various discussions where there were moments you wanted
to cringe at some of the things people would say. Deondra: The most tense moment that stood
out was we had someone who came to share what we were calling testimony, an expert person
who came to share her experiences with us and she offered some prepared comments and
then the committee would proceed to ask questions of each guest, and so we asked questions.
And I think that the guest felt really put upon as a result of the process. I don’t know
that this is the type of reaction that she was used to getting from her prepared comments
and so it was really interesting in the aftermath of that discussion to see how various groups
interpreted it. So for example, there were people in the audience who felt that the committee
wasn’t hard enough on the particular guest or asking questions that were probing enough
or pointed enough. And then you had people online who were making comments about how
biased we all were and how inappropriate this was. Then there was a blogger somewhere else
you know commenting on how the committee had really failed its duty in inviting that particular
guest, asking those softball questions. So it was really interesting, you know how political
that interpretation could be and was. Charmaine: We happened to be at the South
Library which is near Highway 55 and 54 on Old Fayetteville Road, and whenever we would
go into the libraries, Robin and I would just make sure we would tell security that was
there you know who we were and that this might be very passionate, just in case. I saw a
young man come in, a young white man come in, and he had on a shirt that a small Confederate
Flag on the shirt. Ok. No problem. Then I actually saw him turn around when I was speaking
and sit down and he had a bigger one on the back of his shirt and it said the classic
“It’s not about race, it’s about heritage.” Ok, no problem. So we started the process
of breaking into our facilitated discussions. I think that night we had about five different
tables, about ten people at each table, something of that nature. And this young man proceeded
to pull something out of his pocket. I was a little concerned about the pocket issue,
but it was not a gun. It was not a weapon at all, thank goodness. It was a small wooden
piece which he set on the table, and we then figured out it was a small Confederate Flag
to come to sit at the base, about six inches. People were already mumbling about the shirt.
What he said to me, which was actually funny at the end of the day, but I couldn’t laugh
either, “I have this here representing the black soldiers during the Confederacy.” I
was very nice I said, “Well, no one else at the table has any other remembrances so we
need for your remembrance to be put away and we still would love for you to stay and have
discussion.” He got mad. I’m going to report you, going to report you, I asked him three
times, I said, “Ok, now I’ve asked you nicely three times. You’ve left me no choice but
to get security.” Ok, I go get security. The good part was they convinced him after about
15-20 minutes to go put it in his car, he came back and went on with the entire facilitated
discussion. Gunther:This actually speaks to the experiential
part that you have raised. How did your views of the monument change and did they? Robin: I think it was the second meeting that
we had when we had Fitz Brundage come who’s a UNC History professor who’s done a lot of
work on this. And I asked him a question, did he see a difference to say a Robert E.
Lee or Jeb Stewart or you know any of the sort of Confederate leaders, heroes, did he
see a difference between that kind of a monument and a monument like Durham’s which is to the
common soldier, right? Is there, when you’re talking about these monuments, representing
white supremacy, is there a sort of gradation of difference? And he said no, but that really
stuck with me because I kind of kept thinking, “Well, wait a second, you’re talking about
a monument honoring young men for the most part who were not necessarily slave owners
and who were conscripted and who died in a war. And if we’re adjudicating monuments to
stupid wars, there are a lot of stupid wars that we have monuments to that aren’t this
conflicted. And so I just keep thinking about that. And one of the members of our committee
is a re-enactor and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He and his unit will
be called b y the Department of Transportation in North Carolina to come to recover the remains
of soldiers if there are building projects, a highway or a building or whatever. They
will go in their re-enactment uniforms and sometimes they’ll be mixed units, Confederate
and Union re-enactors, and they’ll go and actually recover the remains of these young
men and re-inter them in another place. And I realized that that connection to the dead
is something that I have not felt but that he felt very strongly because he literally
goes to these places and takes these remains with his colleagues and then reburies them
with some sort of sense of reverence and honor. And I guess that shifted my thinking, not
about the white supremacy part of the monument but about how some people feel about the monument.
I think Deondra was kind of alluding to this in her comment, the level of emotion, which
is not factual, it’s not grounded in historical fact but it’s been cultivated over many generations
within families. You know people came with an enormous emotion and again on all sides
of this that really wasn’t something that you could argue against with facts. What could
we do that respects the people who feel this dedication not to the cause of the Civil War,
not to the people who led the Civil War but to the young men whose lives were squandered. Charmaine: The person that represented the
Sons of the Confederacy, we sat beside each other a couple of times in those months and
actually became friends. And near the end when we were compiling our report, I suggested
I call him to make sure we were all on the same page on a couple of issues. His perspective
had shifted a little bit too. I think we both gained a level of respect for each other’s
opinion. We did not necessarily change our opinion but I did at least understand where
he was coming from and his reverence for his fallen family members. The bottom line came
down and I said “You know we all agreed that we would deal with facts.” And one of the
issues was Julian Carr was a member of the KKK, and at the end of the day he said “That
is a factual statement. It needs to stay.” There were several other issues but I think
we both had come a little closer to each other’s perspectives. I didn’t change my mind but
I valued his opinion at this point and I think he valued mine and we walked away saying we
would probably be friends. Gunther: As a student of history, so much
is irreconciled still about the Civil War, why it was fought, about really whose sacrifices
matter. I’m wondering about the process of truth and reconciliation and how you think
the monument in its current state can actually create some reconciliation? Robin: I think reconciliation is a multi-generational
process. When we think of reconciliation as something that happens even within a single
generation I don’t know of any country in the world where that has actually happened.
Our very own history is not talked about and is not taught and is not kind of in our blood
stream the way you know George Washington and the cherry tree is so I think that part
of reconciliation for me is a better, a more robust commitment to telling the whole story.
I always quote Pauli Murray, it’s telling the whole story of the past, not only the
dignity but the degradation of the past. You have to tell it all. Deondra: We are very much oriented toward
individual. And I think that our capacity to reconcile our contemporary goals and aspirations
with our history requires that we think more collectively and more consistently and I think
that goes back to what Robin says about achieving a more holistic, rounded, inclusive sense
of history and understanding of history, but then also a commitment to a more inclusive
politics in the future. You know this process really gave some valuable insights into the
politics of space and the politics of public celebration and historically we’ve really
been very narrow in who we celebrate and who has access to our public spaces and power
of that possession. And so if we really want to move forward, people who have enjoyed a
lot of that power historically are going to have to cede some of it and I think that’s
difficult. You know there is a redistributive element to this that is politically difficult. Charmaine: I have this issue frequently. You
and I talked a little bit before we started about some of my memories and my siblings’
memories of being some of the first to integrate Durham Public Schools. They’re not happy stories
and so I get a lot of “Well, why do you want to go back there and tell that?” Well, you
know, you can’t go forward without telling all of the truth. Yeah, two black students
integrated Durham High School in 1959 and the graduated in June of 1960 but in between,
my sister got knocked down the steps, left to got beat up basically, and the only person
that helped her were the black folks that worked at Durham High School at the time.
It does concern me that when we want to tell the truth, we just want to tell a portion
of the truth. And without having all of the stories, we are missing the ability to move
forward in a more positive way. Why do you think the statue came down when
it did? What other factors do you think were in play that allowed the statue to come down
a year ago and not earlier than that? Robin: This actually goes back further to
Charleston and the killing of the worshipers in the church and there actually has been
a lot of protest around Confederate statues before then. An unavoidable factor is the
election of this president to the White House, along with the passage of the law in the General
Assembly in 2015 which essentially prevented municipalities from making their own decisions.
You know often people would say “Oh, you’re erasing the past, you’re erasing history by
taking down these monuments.” The monuments are not history. They are a veneration of
a certain idea. But at the same time, people take monuments down all the time. From the
ancient Egyptians until now, monuments are switched out all the time. So it’s not unusual
to think about does the city or county want a different sort of representation of its
values, essentially monuments are values, so the effort to take down the statues was
really energized by these horrific violent acts but also the particular political moment
that both handcuffed our elected officials who couldn’t do anything and also made this
issue really come to the forefront. Charmaine: You also have to remember that
the president of the United States did say, “There are good people on both sides” in Charlottesville.
That was a powerful statement for me. I have not forgotten it and I believe that was an
impetus for pulling the monument down in Durham. Robin: We talked a fair amount about the Bennett
Place Monument, the Unity Monument. Bennett Place is where the last and biggest surrender
of the Civil War took place. So in 1923, Durham put up a monument to unity, so it’s got one
pillar that’s the Confederacy, one pillar that’s the Union and the idea is that it’s
a monument to peace. That monument has never been controversial. A year later the Durham
monument goes up – or they start to fundraise for the Durham monument and the little dirty
secret of that monument is that people didn’t support it even then, not black people, not
white people. It was the Daughters of the Confederacy, named for Julian Carr, who were
fundraising this memorial and they could not raise enough money because nobody wanted it
and so they finally convinced the legislature to levy a one time only tax on Durham residents
to pay for this statue and so it is the only statue, one of the only Confederate statues
in the United States that’s actually paid for with public money. We’ve also lost that
history of not only Durham people not supporting it at the time, white people not supporting
it at the time but black people were forced to pay for it through taxes at a time when
they, for the most part, could not vote. Part of what we’re hoping with this pretty revolutionary
idea that you display the damaged statue is that that history also be a part of it. I just had a question about the reasoning
behind the first recommendation putting the display in a building near the location of
the original statue rather than like a museum for example? Charmaine: Part of it goes back to the 2015
Governor McCrory, I’d call it that, but the legislature put it in place, about. I’m grappling
with “similar place of historical significance” or something like that. In other words, if
you take them down you’ve got to put them up somewhere else. In front of a court house,
how do you duplicate that? You know, similar? Part of our point is we see him in the state
he’s in now and how and why he was brought down. The same way we’re leaving the base
and we’re contextualizing that to say how that got there. So I was wondering what the committee was
doing or thinking about doing in terms of decreasing the apathy towards the problem
and bringing in more people who previously were like “This is not my problem. It may
not be my problem because I don’t live here originally or because it’s not going to affect
me and my personal life.” To just kind of get everyone to feel the same emotion as the
people who are going to the committee meetings, going to the protests, all that stuff? Robin:I don’t know. I mean I think that that’s
a challenge to get people to care. I hope that you know people, if they want to, come
see the statue in a new location if it’s there. One of the recommendations that’s not up here
is that we also recommended that the county and city add – because we can’t do anything
with the base right now because of the law – so what we advocated is that our public
officials add another installation that would be to Union veterans. This was a Union area,
the Piedmont and so many, many young men, instead of joining the Confederacy, joined
the Union and in particular, African American fighters, even Northerners who had moved to
North Carolina. And then we would have a third pillar that would be to enslaved people to
say look, they were also part of this story, part of this history. And I think the fourth
one we wanted was to women and children who suffered during the war, so the idea would
be to expand the way we talk about the Civil War, but your question about how we get people
engaged in this is a hard one. Charmaine: Just to add to that was but we
did have great involvement in all of our meetings. I’m not sure we had as many young people as
we would have liked. What do you do when it’s like emotions versus
fact? Do you continue to separate them? Do you attempt to reconcile them, bring them
together? How do you approach it? Deondra: I feel like I tend to operate less
in emotions and that gets me in trouble because sometimes, especially when we’re talking about
history and issues that are politically sensitive, you know you can just be rattling off what
you think is rational and factual and really stumble into something that is on the border,
if not completely disrespectful because you’re not being careful about people’s feelings
and emotions about things. So I think for me, just understanding sort of where you tend
to operate and being mindful of what you might need to do to approach those type’s of conversations
in a way that’s generative. And so for me that’s being more in tune to other people
in the room and to their emotions and to do more listening. In the era of fake news and alternative facts,
what role does truth play, especially when you need to take into account people’s perceptions?
So if there is one thing that is truth, perception is relative but it doesn’t matter like the
truth is the truth but now we’re living in a country where truth is relative to whoever
is consuming it so how do you go about looking at issues like white supremacy and Confederate
statues and racial bias and institutional racism and things of that nature when you
can have 400 million different perceptions of what that actually is. Deondra: That was one of the biggest challenges
of engaging in these discussions over the last few months because people came the table
– I think many people already had a bit of – there was a bit of a guard up or maybe a
chip on some shoulders because they felt like they were already misunderstood going into
the conversations and their version of the facts was very different from what they expected
to encounter in the context of our conversations. Beyond much of what I’ve learned in this process,
it’s just been this real disappointment with how I was taught history in the early years,
and part of it is when you sit and you actually read through the Congressional Record and
you read through actual speeches and you understand what really was going on back in 1865 and
you compare that to some of what people come to the table with based on discussions with
their family or family lore, and so I think one way to achieve that is of course to strengthen
how we teach civics and history but then also to invite people with opportunities as early
as possible, to dialogue with people who are completely different from them because I feel
like there’s sort of a give and take there where maybe you would have to question what
you received, the received wisdom of your family or the people you trust the most, who
you started your life with. And it might be easier to do that if you have deep relationships
with people who are bringing different histories to bear to those discussions. I don’t think
that’s going to be easy, you know I think to get people on the same page in terms of
what “truth is” is tough. I think in the context of our discussions with the committee, the
thing that we tried to do was provide as much evidence as possible and provide as much insight
from experts as possible, and I think that was what sort of carried the day in this particular
instance. But in terms of the broader objective of moving toward a shared truth, I think it
will take a lot of evidence, and a lot of reshaping how we teach and treat history. How much did Durham being a liberal hub play
into this? How would you guys think it would have looked if you were in a more rural area
of North Carolina? And then last question, how/would these recommendations look different? Charmaine: A rural community versus an urban
community like this I think would be very different. Having lived in rural communities,
basic things such as, I mean we talk about having them in a variety of locations, physically
getting people to a destination would have been more problematic. Just like you have
a school bus or something like that. Same kind of thing. Access to WiFi and streaming,
that would have been an issue in many, many rural communities, so I think it would have
been a really different process. I think we would have had to think a little bit harder
because geographically, in a rural community that is part of the problem, getting people
to and from a destination because there is no public transportation. And because we are
– I’ll take your word for it – slightly liberal – we did get a lot of diverse voices, but
I’ll say I think the diversity, a lot of it came not just race but age. I did see the
older or the younger you know, there were definitely diverging perspectives within age
as opposed to gender, as opposed to some other concerns. Having the difference between urban
and rural, I don’t know if we would have ever come to all of these decisions. I think it
would have been – we wouldn’t have gotten the diverse voices. I’m not sure we would
have even had the level of participation at the variety of meetings and I’ve worked in
rural communities so I know some of the concerns that are there. And because we had a lot of
people with a lot of different background in the ten individuals and then Robin and
I as co-chairs, their diversity in itself we probably would have never found also in
a rural community. Gunther: Let me thank you for your questions,
your comments, your reflections and especially thank Charmaine, Deondra, and Robin for their
wisdom and experience. Thanks so much. (Applause)

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