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Sylva resolution opposes county’s ‘Sylva Sam’ plans

Protestors walk below the hill where the statue perches during a July 2020 march opposing the monument. Holly Kays photo Protestors walk below the hill where the statue perches during a July 2020 march opposing the monument. Holly Kays photo

Just shy of a year after it passed a resolution demanding the relocation of Sylva’s Confederate statue, the Sylva Town Board has passed a new resolution, this one rebuking the Jackson County Board of Commissioners’ response to its original request. 

The resolution, which passed June 24 by the same 3-2 split that approved the 2020 document, states that the language the county plans to inscribe on new plaques for the statue would “fail to recognize the statue’s historical legacy associated with the Jim Crow South of the early 1900s” and that its prominent presence downtown “implies that the town of Sylva supports the Confederate cause. 

“The statue in its current location will continue to draw controversy and strife and create a threat to public safety within the Town of Sylva limits for residents and visitors,” the resolution reads. “Now, therefore be it resolved that the Sylva Town Board of Commissioners strongly rejects Jackson County’s plan to alter the appearance and meaning of ‘Sylva Sam’ and leave it in its current location.”

After a lengthy public comment session on July 27, 2020, the Sylva board passed its first resolution on the statue , imploring the county commission to move it outside town limits. Depicting an unnamed Confederate solider, the statue was erected in 1915 to honor those who fought in and supported the war effort, and in 1996 it was rededicated as a monument to Jackson County veterans of all wars. It sits midway up the prominent staircase connecting Main Street and the historic courthouse building, overlooking downtown, but it’s located on county property. 

On Aug. 4, commissioners heard nearly two hours of public comment before voting 4-1 to leave the statue where it is but to alter its base to remove the Confederate flag and words “Our Heroes of the Confederacy” emblazoned there. It wasn’t until April 13 — seven months later — that commissioners discussed potential language for the new plaques planned to cover up the original pro-Confederate inscriptions. On May 18, they voted 4-1 to spend $14,000  enacting the plan. 

The Confederate flag will 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 the Confederacy” would be covered with a plaque spelling out the nation’s unofficial motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” which means “out of many, one.”

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During Sylva’s June 24 meeting , the three town commissioners who form the board’s majority on this issue roundly condemned the county’s plan. 

“The problem with these monuments is they came up during the Jim Crow era and they attempted to change the whole narrative about what the Confederacy stood for, and Jackson County is just perpetuating that same sentiment,” said Commissioner David Nestler. “This is the Lost Cause. This is rewriting history. This is how you rewrite history — you write ‘E Pluribus Unum’ on a Confederate statue.”

 “We did not ask to destroy the sculpture. We did not ask for the controversy,” said Commissioner Greg McPherson. “But the Town of Sylva should reject discrimination in all of its forms, and this is the most obvious personification of discrimination that I can think of. I think that the language that the county came up with is nonsensical. You have an insurrectionist soldier from a vanquished army now representing all veterans of all wars. It makes absolutely no sense to me.”

Commissioner Ben Guiney, who introduced the resolution, said that he did so out of concern that the statue will continue to be a flashpoint that could end with violence, and out of a desire for his future grandchildren to view him as being on the right side of history. 

“Someone’s going to get hurt. It just doesn’t have to happen,” he said. “The county, they say that it’s a compromise because nobody’s happy about it, and just because nobody’s happy about a decision doesn’t imply it’s a good decision or indeed it was a compromise. The Jackson County Commissioners keep stating that they have to consider the entire county, but the statue’s disproportionately affecting our town more so than the rest of the county.”

However, Commissioners Mary Gelbaugh and Barbara Hamilton disagreed with their fellow board members’ position on the matter, maintaining that many locals whose ancestors died in the war view it as a memorial to their lives rather than as a memorial to the Confederacy itself. 

“We cannot rewrite history,” said Hamilton. “I’m sorry that it happened, but I cannot go against a lot of the locals who have loved ones that served. It was the mothers that had that monument made for sons that were for the Confederacy or the Union.”

“I ask that you individually go to the county as a citizen of the county, since it is a county issue now,” Gelbaugh said to Nestler, Guiney and McPherson. “Resolutions can divide the board. Resolutions can make things awkward and uncomfortable. I support that this is your perception and I support this is how you feel, and I also support how Barbara and I represent a different demographic and how we feel. And I don’t think in any way we are trying to be disrespectful to you or those who feel the way you feel.”

Mayor Lynda Sossamon, who does not vote except in case of a tie, said only, “I look forward to the days when we can all work together and have consensus again instead of issues dividing us.” 

Ultimately, the resolution passed 3-2, with Hamilton and Gelbaugh opposed. The breakdown was the same as the July 2020 vote, which also passed 3-2. 

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