[Commentary] Why Is A Small Southern Town Still Touting “Our Loyal Slaves” In 2021?
Across America, there still stand these unfathomable statues. They are monuments to white supremacy, reminders of an America where a confederacy of states rose up and fought to keep the right to treat human beings as property. They often rely on revisionist history — a pretense that the U.S. Civil War was somehow about something other than slavery, but ultimately, they all commemorate, even celebrate, the fight to maintain that status quo.
In one small town in eastern North Carolina, the inscription on the statue goes further, adding even more insult to injury. It dares to claim “appreciation” for, and I quote, “our faithful slaves.” I’ll give you a moment to digest that. It’s now 2021. The Civil War ended in 1865. Contrary to what one might believe if one was using bumper stickers and country music as history texts, the Confederacy surrendered.
It’s not clear exactly how many monuments remain that still tout the “our faithful slaves” revisionist history lie. The Southern Poverty Law Center documents 1,747 Confederate monuments total still standing, and the fight to remove these celebrations of an America where white supremacy was not just written into law, but brutally enforced, is a long, slow one.
I’ll refer to a 2019 article in The Nation to briefly explain the history and purpose of the particularly sickening descriptor.
“In the face of African-American empowerment struggles, loyal-slave monuments telegraphed the idea that slavery had been the natural state of things. Faithful-slave markers also warned black folks working to overturn the racial-caste system in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that they risked the same brutal violence that had kept racial order during slavery.”
In short, the single line is a way of denying, pretending away, every effort of enslaved people to seek freedom — from the Underground Railroad, to escapes, to uprisings. It’s a shorthand for a narrative in which revisionists pretend that Black people were happy and willing to be enslaved. It’s a cruel lie, and it’s still engraved in stone — well, to be literal, it’s cast in zinc, as UNC documentation attests — in my tiny hometown of Columbia, North Carolina.
Speaking of revisionist history, here’s another inscription on the monument.
It reads, “The Confederate soldier won and is entitled to the admiration of all who love honor, and liberty.” Again, the Confederacy surrendered. They lost. The Confederate soldier did not win the war, nor did he win any entitlement to admiration from lovers of liberty — liberty is actually diametrically opposite from slavery.
While there have been efforts over the years to have the statue taken down or moved, in the summer of 2020, with the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing and similar monuments coming down across the nation, Ms. Sherry Robinson, a local, began leading the charge to remove the statue in earnest.
WITN documented that summer’s march and protest, small by national standards, but significant in a county with a population of around 4k. Participants who had spent earlier parts of their lives in Tyrrell County traveled, some from out of state, to join and speak about the harm the monument continues to do by reinforcing that false image of history.
County commissioners maintain that the statue simply cannot bremoved, or even relocated. The Coastland Times documented their response in February of 2019, and again in summer of 2019, when another local, Joyce Fitch, appeared at meetings to bring up the statue. In November of 2020, when Sherry Robinson appeared to speak on behalf of Black Community United, the message was the same.
Commissioners cite North Carolina law, forbidding the removal of a commemorative monument, or the movement of it to a place of less prominence or honor — which is interpreted as forbidding the statue’s relocation to, say, a cemetery or museum — without the permission of the North Carolina Historical Society.
Despite these regulations, several of these monuments have come down across the state in the past several years. The Washington Post reported on this in 2019, noting that in some cases, there are lawsuits from entities that take responsibility for or ownership of such monuments — a consideration that would not be relevant in Tyrrell, where the offending statue was a donation to the county.
The same statute also leaves an exception for a monument that is a threat to public safety — though there’s been no legal test for whether, or how, the ongoing damage to historical accuracy and the reinforcement of a white supremacist narrative figure into public harm.
Though the pandemic and other considerations have affected the public gathering aspect of the fight, Black Community United hasn’t given up on the pursuit of a more equal state. In 2020, Robinson also worked to drive voter registration in the community, and the group is still seeking new ways to bring attention to the unjustness of the statue, its horrific inscription, and its position of prominence by the county courthouse in the center of town.
Like other statues that, across America, still celebrate a rebellion against the United States of America, a century and a half after it was quashed, and an institution that should never have existed in any nation that calls itself free, this one too, will come down in its time. However, for those who live in the community and see the statue for the divisive reminder of inequality that it was erected to be, that time is not just now, it is past, and the monument inscribed with the unbearable descriptor of enslaved human beings as ‘faithful’ must go. It must go.