ROCKY MOUNT – The statue of a Confederate soldier that stands outside the Franklin County Courthouse in Rocky Mount won’t be going anywhere.
The Franklin County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to keep the monument where it is. Though at least four of the supervisors spoke of placing a plaque nearby bearing text to expound on the statue’s purpose as a memorial, the board deferred discussions of that idea until a later date.
“The issue that was before this board and that was on the agenda was whether or not the statue of the Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse stays where it’s been all these years or is moved. That’s it,” said Boone District Supervisor Ronnie Thompson. As for the proposed contextualization, “that’s a whole ’nother story for a whole ’nother day,” he said, making the motion to leave the statue in place.
Seconded by Union Hall Supervisor Tommy Cundiff, the motion passed on a roll call vote, in front of an audience of about five people. Because of new state social distancing restrictions, only eight chairs were made available in order to limit the number of people gathered in the chamber to a maximum of 25. Others interested in the proceeding had to wait outside.
The vote followed a Nov. 3 referendum that, while nonbinding, asked county voters to weigh in on whether the statue should be relocated to a site such as a museum. About 29,000 residents voted on the issue, with about 19,900, or 69%, voting to leave the statue as is and 9,100, or 31% percent, voting to move it.
In July, the board chose by a 6-1 vote to put the monument referendum on the ballot after hearing from residents who called the statue a symbol of slavery and wanted it relocated. Calls to dismantle Confederate monuments sounded across the country following the May death of George Floyd, a Black man, while restrained by Minneapolis police officers.
Before July 1, Virginia law prohibited localities from relocating or removing any monument that could be construed as a memorial to combat veterans. With Democrats in control of state government after the November 2019 elections, new laws were enacted that empowered localities to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover up Confederate monuments under their jurisdiction.
Proponents of moving the statue criticized the board for choosing to hold a referendum, pointing out that Black residents make up only about 8% of the county population.
Blackwater District Supervisor Ronnie Mitchell shared feedback from a diversity and inclusion committee he leads, two members of which are part of the recently formed Franklin County chapter of Black Lives Matter. “We’ve got to keep a good discussion,” he said. “We’ve got to keep everybody getting along in the county.”
Mitchell was the first to suggest a plaque that educates visitors about the life stories of the men the statue memorializes, saying the idea came from the Black Lives Matter representatives. “They suggest that maybe the county could do that, so it kind of puts in context who these men were and why they were fighting for what they were fighting for.” It would help those on opposite sides of the issue to understand each other, he said.
Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tim Tatum joined the voices supporting the plaque proposal. “An overwhelming majority of the people have spoken and support the results of the referendum,” he said. “We can’t forget about the 30 percent that want to move the statue.”
The discussion of further contextualization was postponed after County Attorney Jim Guynn pointed out that the statute requires the board to hold a public hearing before any such plan can go forward.