A Confederate statue in North Carolina praises 'faithful slaves.' Some citizens want it gone

A Confederate monument at a North Carolina county courthouse is at the center of a lawsuit for what some say explicitly supports slavery.

And the words at the heart of contention are: "In appreciation of our faithful slaves."

That quote has stirred a long battle in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. Several Black residents said in a recent federal lawsuit against the Tyrrell County Board of Commissioners that the words endorse slavery and violate the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.

History and art experts told USA TODAY the monument's placement at the county's courthouse sends a troubling message to Black residents.

"This civic monument is appallingly explicit in its pro-slavery message, communicating it not only in text but its proximity to a legal institution — suggesting that the destructive 'Lost Cause' narrative is not merely a myth but a lawful truth," Jessica Baran, art history doctoral candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in an email.

The "Lost Cause" narrative refers in general to attempts to present the Civil War from the perspective of Confederates and in the best possible terms, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia. Developed by white Southerners, many of them former Confederate generals, the Lost Cause created and romanticized the “Old South” and the Confederate war effort, often distorting history in the process, according to the encyclopedia.

The nearly 23-foot-tall monument next to the Tyrrell County Courthouse is of a common Confederate soldier with a written tribute to "the Confederate cause." It also contains a bust of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, along with the words "in appreciation of our faithful slaves" on a separate panel, according to the University of North Carolina library.

Confederate Army Lt. Col. William F. Beasley gifted the county the monument in 1902. The courthouse opened in 1903, according to state records.

Concerned Citizens of Tyrrell County, the group suing the county commissioners to remove the monument, said in the lawsuit that the structure is likely the only one in the country at a courthouse that "expresses a racial discriminatory message." The citizens group has rallied and spoken at county commissioner meetings to remove the structure with no luck, at times facing what they claim is racial intimidation by other residents.

"It's really a racially hostile environment for them at this point in the county because they're well known for having spoken out against this statute," said Jaelyn Miller, attorney for Concerned Citizens of Tyrrell County. "It's made some folks fearful to continue doing rallies and demonstrations because of that."

A monument at the Tyrrell County Courthouse in North Carolina has drawn controversy for its inscription reading, 'In appreciation of our faithful slaves.' Lt. Col. William F. Beasley gifted the monument in 1902.
A monument at the Tyrrell County Courthouse in North Carolina has drawn controversy for its inscription reading, 'In appreciation of our faithful slaves.' Lt. Col. William F. Beasley gifted the monument in 1902.

Neither of the five Tyrell County Board of Commissioners responded to USA TODAY's request for comment. According to UNC, county manager and attorney David Clegg and board chair Nathan "Tommy" Everett said state law prevents the statue's removal, but Miller said the 2015 law only applies to structures on state-owned property.

Current Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has been governor since 2017, supports removals.

It's the latest Confederate monument eyed for removal among hundreds after racial unrest across the nation. A white man killed nine Black worshippers in 2015 at a Charleston, South Carolina, church; white nationalists rallied in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, leaving one woman dead; and hundreds protested George Floyd's death in 2020, demanding an end to systemic racism.

"It's not so much these monuments have been erased, it's that they are being moved out of these conspicuous public spaces," said W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

University of Alabama history professor Hilary Green, who couldn't immediately be reached for comment, has tracked Confederate monument removals before and after the racist Charleston church shooting. The map was last updated in October 2023. She told the University of Alabama in 2020 that removals are the beginning of conversations about underlying issues and tensions in communities.

Special case because of location near courthouse

The Confederate monument is a special case, Brundage said, because of its inscription and location. He said white elites dedicated the monuments to each other, honoring their fights for the Confederacy. But the Tyrrell County monument doesn't separate the army from slavery.

Other monuments across the country spoke about states' rights.

"It is unusual to have a Confederate monument of any kind, but certainly not one in front of the courthouse that specifically links the commemoration of the Confederacy with the commemoration of the service of 'faithful slaves,'" Brundage said. "It is an exceptional monument to make the linkage between the Confederacy and slavery as it does."

Fight for the monument's removal has directly affected some Black residents. Miller said Adriana Blakeman and Sherryreed Robinson, who are Black, faced armed supporters and were driven off the side of roads for their activism, which they alleged in the lawsuit. Miller said it was the latest intimidation tactics they faced as they've pursued the statue's removal.

"That's the sort of like double standard that they're having to live through and threats to their physical safety," Miller said.

Brundage said the lawsuit - and any future ones across the country - will be a spectacle with efforts picking up across the country to dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. He's curious on how the national conversation will spill into the courts on cases filed under the Fourteenth Amendment.

"I'm wondering whether that backlash will, in any way, impact the ability of activists to appeal to a language of inclusion as grounds for the removal of these monuments," he said. "There just seems to be less, at least in the political discourse, sympathy or less tolerance for the language of inclusion."

Contact reporter Krystal Nurse at knurse@USATODAY.com. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @KrystalRNurse.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawsuit seeks removal of Confederate monument in North Carolina