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Commissioners discuss changes to Sylva statue

Commissioners discuss changes to Sylva statue

Eight months after voting to revamp the pedestal of the county’s controversial Civil War monument, Jackson County commissioners got their first look at what the new version might look like. 

On Aug. 4, 2020, commissioners voted 4-1 to deny a request from the Town of Sylva to move the statue elsewhere but to remove the Confederate flag and the inscription “Our Heroes of the Confederacy” from the statue’s base. The only opposing vote came from Commissioner Ron Mau, who is no longer on the board. 

Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner Gayle Woody have been collaborating on a proposal for what the new inscription should say and presented their ideas to the full board during an April 13 work session. Under their proposal, the Confederate flag on the front side of the statue would be covered with a large plaque reading, “Jackson County N.C. Civil War Memorial. This monument was erected by citizens of Jackson County in memory of those who died during the American Civil War. Originally dedicated on September 18, 1915. Rededicated on May 11, 1996 to honor Jackson County veterans of all wars.”

The words “Our heroes of” currently located below the flag, would be removed, and a plaque spelling out the nation’s unofficial motto, “E Pluribus Unum” — which means “out of many, one” — would cover the words “The Confederacy.”

There are no plans to permanently cover or remove an original plaque on the back of the pedestal 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.” 

For much of the past year a chain-link fence has encircled the statue, and a plywood frame has covered the pedestal. 

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McMahan and Woody also suggested installing some interpretive signs around the statue to more completely tell the story of the Civil War’s impact on Jackson County and its citizens’ involvement. 

“We didn’t want to do anything more than we had to do to this monument, minimize the amount of changes, and it had been suggested by several members of the community that maybe we should put the names of the soldiers from Jackson County who served on here,” said McMahan. “But that’s a hard thing to do because you’re trying to find all these names and to make sure you’re not leaving somebody out.”

The list of names — mostly Confederate but including some local Union soldiers too — would fit better on the proposed storyboards, and should future research reveal names left off the original version, it would be easier to add those names to external signs than to the statue itself. 

Commissioners Mark Jones and Boyce Deitz complimented McMahan and Woody on their work. 

“I know that when you read that it’s somewhat simple,” said Deitz. “And I know y’all had to put a lot of time in that. So I appreciate you doing that, and I think we have a desire to some way try to bring people together in this whole country and the state and our county, and I think that’s part of what I see that y’all did there.”

Commissioner Tom Stribling, meanwhile, asked why the board was suggesting any changes at all. McMahan then briefed him on the August 2020 vote, which occurred prior to Stribling’s election to the board but well after he’d filed to run for election. 

“Boy, that’s a shame,” said Stribling. “That’s a shame. That’s history right there. I don’t understand it, but I guess you all voted on it, and I don’t really have a say-so.”

Regardless of the words ultimately chosen, the decision is likely to meet opposition from multiple corners of the community, including those most distant from Stribling, the board’s sole Republican. 

Frank Huguelet, a leader in the effort to keep the statue where it is, said that he’s not in favor of the statue being altered at all but can live with that decision, and with the language as proposed. 

“I think the problem that we have run into with any debate is you have two sides and no matter how it turns out somebody’s going to feel ripped off. Somebody’s going to lose,” he said. “And in a cultural issue like this I just looked at it as I don’t like anything being done and I don’t like any alterations, but if the best way to ensure the monument remains is by altering some of the language on it, then so be it.”

Reconcile Sylva, the racial justice group that initiated calls to remove the statue, has made it clear that its members do not consider commissioners’ decision to leave it up with alterations to be a compromise, pledging to continue protesting the statue as long as it remains in its prominent downtown location. 

“This is just putting lipstick on a pig,” reads an April 15 post on the group’s Facebook page linking to The Smoky Mountain News’ initial reporting on the proposed language. “So, this is a long game, but that’s ok. On to the next phase of getting this ugly racist thing removed. It’s so embarrassing that the rest of the country is working to dismantle racism while Jackson County wallows in it. Shameful.”

However, there seems to be little appetite among board members to relocate the statue, and even if there were the board’s legal authority to do so is in question. A 2015 state law provides 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.” 

The county has few other sites of similar prominence, honor, visibility and availability to the steps ascending Sylva’s courthouse hill, where the statue currently resides, and because its prominence is the main issue for opponents, relocating it to a similarly visible site would not likely solve the problem. 

While all board members save Stribling expressed support for the proposal from McMahan and Woody, the board has not made any final decisions on the new language to appear on the pedestal. County Manager Don Adams is now working to get estimated pricing for the project, and he will take that information back to the board for a final decision. 

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