During Monday's virtual town council meeting to discuss the monument's future, several dozen people gathered outside town hall even though the meeting was held on-line.
LOUISBURG -- By an unusual, split 4-to-3 vote during a virtual, emergency meeting Monday night, the Louisburg Town Council decided to move the Confederate Monument that has been on North Main Street for 106 years to nearby Oakwood Cemetery and place it near the graves of Confederate soldiers.
The action came as symbols of the Confederacy around the nation are coming under increased scrutiny and many are being removed.
The local monument, with its anonymous, south-facing replica of a Confederate soldier, has been a subject of controversy in the past, particularly in recent years.
Its location, in the middle of North Main Street, also placed it, symbolically at least, on the southern edge of the Louisburg College campus, a school which has developed a predominantly African-American student body in recent years.
Recently, protests and vigils in downtown Louisburg have placed increased scrutiny on the monument and after a brief confrontation around the monument resulted in one arrest recently, some local officials feared that the monument could become a trigger-point for violence.
That apparently brought about Monday night's emergency meeting during which every elected member of the council expressed an opinion about the monument or its proposed move -- and during which more than 100 members of the public submitted electronic messages to the council indicating whether or not they were in favor of moving the monument or keeping it where it now stands. Comments from the public were split Monday night, but unofficially it seemed that more opposed moving the monument than leaving it at its current site. In recent days, a petition asking that the monument be moved has circulated and, at last count, contained some 5,300 signatures.
Monday night, when it came time for local officials to speak, Town Council member Christopher Neal gave an emotional response, noting that he is the descendant of slaves who were held in bondage.
What bondage meant, he told fellow councilmen, was that slave owners had the right to "violate the wife and sell off children," and that fact left him with "extremely deep feelings for this monument.
"We should not be afraid of change," he continued as he recalled the days when some contended that allowing black persons to join the Louisburg Volunteer Fire Department might "cause the world to end."
But integration happened, he said, and "the world didn't end." The same was said of integrating Louisburg High School, he continued, but the "world didn't end then either."
As a child growing up in Louisburg, Neal recalled the time "when I could not cross the (Louisburg College) campus because of the color of my skin. Can you imagine how that made me feel?" he asked.
"Now," he noted, "Louisburg College has a majority African-American student body."
Neal told the council that "we are at a unique moment in time. We also have been lucky in Louisburg so far. Our citizens have been peaceful," he said, adding that outsiders have been coming in to 'defend' the monument, alluding perhaps to two motorcycle clubs that showed up at the monument during a recent downtown march.
Neal said he didn't want the community "to be caught in violence" and predicted that when students return to the college campus this fall, they could be confronted by what he called those outside forces.
"We cannot risk a major confrontation," he said, adding that even local businesses would be adversely affected by such violence.
"This is a tough vote for all of us. But we have to do what's right," Neal concluded.
Town Council member Emma Stewart said she "had thought long and hard about this issue, even prayed about it.
"There will always be some who will be unhappy," she said.
"But we want Louisburg to move forward.
"None of us had a choice about whether we were born black, white, Asian, etc.
"But I would like to see us move forward," Stewart said, adding that it would be better to place the monument in Oakwood Cemetery near the graves of Confederate veterans than to see it destroyed.
Council member Boyd Sturges emphasized that this is an "emotional issue.
"Look what happened in Raleigh (last Friday night)," he told the council, referencing a crowd that took down part of a Confederate monument and prompted Gov. Roy Cooper to remove other such monuments within a few hours.
"The time has come to move the statue, he said.
Council member Betty Wright, noting that she grew up in Louisburg and experienced racism first-hand, said she didn't want her children or grandchildren to face what she's faced.
"The statue needs to come down," Wright said. "I would love to move it to safer place, where it was meant to be," she said, adding that place was Oakwood Cemetery.
Council member Tom Clancy took a different approach, saying "I don't know if we have the right to move" the monument.
"Who legally owns the monument?" he asked the board.
"We need to get clarification of that before making a decision," he said.
The council's newest member, Mark Russell, asked what the cost of moving the monument would be.
"I'm not in favor of writing a blank check to move it," he said.
He also questioned why Monday's emergency meeting was called so quickly and said what was needed was what he called "an open dialogue" about the monument's future.
"We can hide a statue," he said, "but that doesn't solve all of the problems."
He suggested tabling the issue until the council's regular July meeting and urged the council "not to move out of fear.
"We need to unite the community," he said.
Asked his opinion of the issue by council member Stewart, Mayor Karl Pernell questioned what he called "this hastily called meeting.
"I'd like to give the people more say so" about the monument's future, he continued.
The mayor suggested the issue "be tabled for another time."
But Councilwoman Wright quickly asserted that "there is no need to table this.
"The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time.
"I don't believe this is a fast move. I'd rather it come down safely," she said, rather than be destroyed by conflict.
Council member Neal said the suggestion to table the issue was typical of past efforts like those to integrate the fire department and the schools.
"It's always just wait, let's wait," he said. "That always comes up. We can't wait any longer. Let's do this, there is a sense of urgency."
He called the option to move the monument to the cemetery a "compromise" between taking it down permanently and leaving it where it is.
Council member Sturges quickly made a motion to relocate the monument to "the old portion of Oakwood cemetery, facing the U.S. 401 highway."
He also moved that the monument be replaced with a monument that would honor all Franklin County war dead -- and that the new monument include both the American flag and the North Carolina flag.
There should be a plaque to honor "all our war dead" from all wars, he said.
That motion passed on a 4-to-3 vote with Neal, Wright, Sturges and Stewart voting to move the monument to the cemetery and Russell, Clancy and Mayor Pernell voting against the motion. Town officials said after the meeting that no timetable has been set for actually moving the monument but that it should happen as quickly as practical.
After the meeting, it was learned that Louisburg attorney Larry Norman had written a letter to Mayor Pernell questioning whether the town had the authority to move the statue.
He said that the state's General Statute Section 100-2.1 requires the approval of the North Carolina Historical Commission and added that the statue is "apparently" not located on property owned by the town.
He also contended that the monument is within the town's historic district and removing it "may also require the approval of the Town of Louisburg Historical Commission."
Norman also questioned whether Monday's virtual meeting fulfilled the state requirements for a public meeting, even though residents were allowed to comment via a computer connection -- and more than 100 did that.
Norman's letter concluded that "I cannot understand why this decision has to be made in such a hasty manner and would request that the decision be delayed until a true public and open meeting can be conducted and proper authority for removal of the statue be obtained, if possible."
Later social media reports indicated that Norman and others may challenge the council's decision in the courts.
On the other side of the issue is long-time Louisburg College art professor Will Hinton and his wife, Pat. It was Will Hinton who first floated the idea of relocating the monument to the cemetery about two and a half years ago.
Hinton noted he has "always been against any type of defacement or vandalism of the monument and said that the "Louisburg Town Council's decision spoke with truth and dignity for all the members of our small town as they voted 4-to-3 to relocate our Confederate Monument."
The four votes were made, he noted, by "Emma Ruth Stewart who believed this decision would move our town into a brighter future. Boyd Sturges clearly thought that it was incumbent upon the council to make this decision for our town at this time.
"But for me personally, it was an honor and privilege to listen to the life experience of both Betty Wright and Chris Neal in terms of what the Monument stood for to them and the entire African-American population as a symbol of oppression and inequality.
"We have reached a compromise of dignity due to the leadership of these four town council members. I am proud of our town and sincerely believe our best days are ahead for our town and Louisburg College," he said.