“Commissioner (Gayle) Woody had started this discussion by asking that we consider maybe putting together a task force, and that was why we put this on the agenda, to come back today and debate the merit of that and determine if we want to do that,” said Chairman Brian McMahan.
On Saturday, July 11, nearly 300 people showed up downtown to attend opposing demonstrations — one calling for the statue’s removal, and the other demanding that the monument stay where it is. Erected in September 1915, the statue depicts an unnamed Confederate infantryman standing upon a pedestal featuring a Confederate flag and a plaque that reads, “To our valiant fathers: champions of reconciliation with justice, of union with manhood, of peace with honor; they fought with faithfulness, labored with cheerfulness, and suffered in silence. To our heroic mothers: Spartan in devotion, Teuton in sacrifice, in patience superior to either and in modesty and grace matchless among womankind.”
Supporters of the statue say that it’s an important piece of local history, and that while the Civil War affected the lives of nearly every resident of Jackson County at the time, very few owned slaves. To those soldiers, the war was about defending their homeland from invaders, not about slavery or even racism. Likewise, they say, the statue itself is not about racism.
Opponents, meanwhile, say that the statue represents only the part of local history written by a white society that has for too long controlled the narrative. Jackson County may not have been a plantation community, but slavery still existed there, and the subjugation of Black people was a cornerstone of the short-lived Confederacy.
Commissioners drop task force idea
Those opponents also decried Woody’s task force idea, which she originally floated during a June 16 work session, as a dangerous proposition that would turn marginalized people into targets and allow commissioners to shirk their responsibility as leaders.
During the July 14 meeting, Woody said that she made the suggestion out of recognition that “we are five white individuals and that our county is more diverse than that,” hoping that by bringing people of different backgrounds together “we could hopefully come to some common ground where we could move forward respectfully.” She added that it was never her intention to abdicate the board’s role as the decision-making body, but rather to receive information and perspective from a more diverse group before making that decision.
“In answer to your question, I want to defer to the board what you all think,” she said. “I have some dear friends in this community that I wanted to suggest to be on that task force. I would never want to put them in the situation where they would be attacked and treated disrespectfully, so I’m kind of rethinking, and I want to defer to my fellow commissioners to have your input on if you think that would be a positive thing, or would it be more divisive.”
Commissioner Boyce Deitz said he thought a task force could yield positive results but that the current atmosphere might be too charged for such an effort to work.
“If it’s done correctly — I don’t know what that would be — it may be good, but I think there’s so many possibilities and it opens so many doors to bad relationships between people,” he said. “I’ve asked people, ‘Would you serve?’ They say, ‘I ain’t serving on it.’”
Woody said that, no matter what happens, she wants to see the community focus on unity as it navigates this issue.
“We have so many wonderful people here in Jackson County, and I’m hearing from them daily, on both sides of this issue, and I want people to know that,” she said. “Like Commissioner Deitz said, you’re stigmatizing people because they’re ‘them’ on the other side. Whatever side they’re on, we need to be talking about ‘us.’ We are the citizens of Jackson County. We are ‘us.’”
The board did not come to any firm consensus on the task force question.
“So do we need a task force then?” asked Commissioner Ron Mau.
“I think it’s a listening,” responded Commissioner Mickey Luker. “It’s not acting hastily, but to take some time and listen and continue the dialogue.”
McMahan noted that, while he’s received many questions as to when the board will take action, as of now the issue is not an item on the commissioners’ agenda. If the Town of Sylva passes the resolution Sylva Commissioner David Nestler has proposed to officially request the county to remove the statue from downtown, that would trigger movement toward a vote, said McMahan.
What to do with Sylva Sam?
Commissioners did discuss the statue issue at length, giving their initial thoughts on the overall question facing them — should the statue go, or should it stay?
The board’s powers are limited by a state law passed in 2015 that states that “an object of remembrance located on public property may not be permanently removed and may only be relocated … An object of remembrance that is permanently relocated shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access that are within the boundaries of the jurisdiction from which it was relocated.”
So, were the statue to be moved, it would have to remain in Jackson County and would have be placed in a location of equal prominence as the courthouse steps where it currently stands overlooking the town.
“I might see that monument left,” said Deitz. “I’d like to see that monument stay where it’s at.”
“The war was a terrible, terrible thing,” he added later in the conversation. “The most terrible thing that could be, that you would fight with your brother and fight with each other, and that’s what the Civil War was. We were fighting each other … This is a terrible thing we’re talking about that happened. We can’t forget our history.”
However, said Deitz, he doesn’t think the statue should remain unchanged. He’d like to see the Confederate flag emblem removed from the statue.
“To be completely truthful, I’d like to see us take that flag off that stone up there,” he said. “Every time I see that flag, I have no good thoughts. And that’s always been true of my life.”
“I agree with you about the flag,” said Commissioner Ron Mau. “Absolutely.”
Mau, an engineer, also questioned whether the statue was structurally sound enough to survive relocation.
McMahan agreed that the statue should stay and that removing the Confederate flag would be a good idea. He suggested the flag be covered up with a plaque that discusses Jackson County’s particular history and role in the Civil War. Additionally, he said, the county could install some interpretive signage covering the statue’s 1915 installation, its meaning to the community and the impact of the Jim Crow era.
“Instead of someone trying to tell you what your history is, let people stand there and read it and make a reasonable, educated decision about what history is,” he said.
“Maybe we do put it out before the people as we’re taking calls and emails and say, ‘I think we’re in agreement that we don’t want to see it come off the hill, but what can we do to change the situation? What would you recommend as a compromise or conditions of change that we could do?’” said Commissioner Mickey Luker. “There may be someone that has that perfect answer for us.”
“I do believe it has to be changed,” said Woody in an interview. “And whether that means relocate it, cover the Confederate flag — I’m just throwing out suggestions. I’ve gotten literally hundreds of suggestions all the way from just leaving it where it is because it’s been there for 100 years to moving it and hiding it, which we can’t legally do.”
The next time the issue is likely to be discussed publicly is during the Sylva Board of Commissioners meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday, July 23. The Jackson County Commissioners’ next scheduled meeting will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4.
Petition calls for statue to stay
During a work session Tuesday, July 14, Commissioner Gayle Woody presented commissioners with a petition community members had given her calling for the Confederate statue on the courthouse steps to stay.
The signatures were delivered in a spiral notebook labeled “Keep Statue Petition” and included four pages totaling 101 names.