Twelve volunteers will walk past a towering Confederate monument into the Gaston County Courthouse Tuesday to discuss whether that statue should be removed. The outcome will provide one measure of just how much perspectives are shifting on matters of race, power and history.
Like cities and towns across the former Confederacy, Gastonia erected its memorial to the Civil War dead in the early 20th century, at a time when Jim Crow segregation and racial violence flourished and the Lost Cause was being redefined and celebrated.
And like cities and towns across America, it’s now facing protests and calls to remove what some call a symbol of white supremacy: a granite Rebel soldier atop a 30-foot pillar, planted directly in front of the courthouse.
"It being erected there on the courthouse grounds is totally inappropriate. Individuals go there for justice," said Chris Thomason, president of Gaston County's NAACP chapter. "I know they say it represents heritage and history, but in the Black community, that represents hate and hostility, a time when things were not equal."
That’s not a new argument, but that heritage and history thing goes deep in Gastonia, about 25 miles west of uptown Charlotte.
Gaston County was a hotbed of secessionist sympathy, sending about half its white men to fight for the Confederacy. That’s according to a 2013 essay on Gaston’s civil war experience – part of the UNC library’s collection of reports on North Carolina monuments.
In 1912 the local United Daughters of the Confederacy raised $3,000 for the monument, which was planted in front of the new county courthouse in the heart of downtown Gastonia.
Like many towns, Gastonia eventually replaced that courthouse. A bigger building opened on the northern edge of downtown in 1998, and the monument moved with it. That’s unusual, according to the monument report.
A New Perspective
In the aftermath of a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gaston County commissioners got requests to remove the monument.
Commissioner Ronnie Worley, who had been elected the year before, joined his colleagues taking no action.
"Maybe I didn’t have the political courage to say, ‘Yeah, we need to move it,’ although I probably knew then," Worley said Monday.
Now he says it’s time to move the monument.
"So I’m thinking well, how would a Jewish person feel if they had to look at a swastika? Maybe Black Americans feel the same way looking at this monument to the Confederacy and what was a symbol of hate to that population," he said.
Worley, a retired state trooper and former mayor of Cramerton, says his conviction came from not only from the current national upheaval over race but from talks with local Black people who say the symbolism makes them skeptical about the justice system.
Worley says he doesn’t want to see the monument demolished – just moved to a different location, like the county’s history museum.
He says he recognizes that his stand could cost him reelection in November.
Trump Defends Monuments
Gaston County is more than three-quarters white and less than 20% Black.
In 2016, 64% of Gaston voters went for Donald Trump. Just a few days ago Trump stood in front of Mount Rushmore and lashed out at what he called a "left-wing cultural revolution."
"They are determined to tear down every statue, symbol and memory of our national heritage. That is why I’m deploying national law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law," Trump said July 3 to applause.
So it’s not clear whether the quest to move the monument will get much traction. But the seven-member Board of Commissioners – all white, male and Republican – agreed to create what they call a Council of Understanding. It’s a racially mixed group made up of six people who want to move the monument and six who want to keep it in place.
That group holds its first meeting at noon Tuesday, with limited public seating inside the courthouse to allow for virus-safe distancing. It will be streamed at GastonGov.com.
One Council of Understanding member is the Rev. Thomas Gillespie, a lifelong Gaston County resident who serves as mayor pro-tem of Lowell.
"We're going to learn about how different people look at the Confederate statue, but what I really want people to know is that we – and please get this —are of one blood," he said Monday.
Gillespie said he'll talk more about his reasons for wanting the statue moved at the meeting.
Another member is Bill Starnes of Mount Holly, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member who has led rallies at the monument in full Confederate regalia. In the past he’s given interviews saying people who object to the monument are just wrong about history and need educating. Monday he told WFAE he wouldn’t do interviews because reporters can distort his words.
Commissioner Chad Brown of Stanley appointed Starnes. Brown says what he most wants from the Council of Understanding is an honest conversation about racism.
"Until we learn to have the honest conversation of what it means and how each side can get along and respect each other – until the word ‘respect’ comes into play, we will always have racism, whether it’s Black, white, Latino, Asian," Brown said.
And Brown wants people to look at the whole context of the courthouse area. After the new courthouse opened officials changed the name of the street to Martin Luther King Way. There’s a monument to King across the street with “I have a dream” etched in several languages.
"If you look at it, it’s a timeline of what has happened in civil rights and more of a history lesson," he said.
The citizens council can only make recommendations to the county commissioners. Thomason, the NAACP president, says he’d like to see the process lead to real change, but he’s skeptical.
"They have said many things before that they’ve gone back on and offered some type of excuse as to why," Thomason said.
If that’s the case, he says, people who oppose the monument will look for other ways to push for its removal – such as appealing to the state legislature.
WFAE's Dashiell Coleman contributed to this report.