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Sylva, Jackson County discuss next steps for Confederate statue

Protestors took to the streets July 11 to show their opposition to the Confederate solider statue on the hill below Sylva's historic courthouse, now the Jackson County Public Library. Protestors took to the streets July 11 to show their opposition to the Confederate solider statue on the hill below Sylva's historic courthouse, now the Jackson County Public Library. Holly Kays

With nearly six weeks now elapsed since Jackson County Commissioners voted to cover up the Confederate flag on the base of the controversial statue overlooking Sylva, town commissioners are asking the county to either make the fix quick or put a temporary covering over the image. 

“I know they were in their work session the other day, and it still sounds like they’re trying to figure that out,” said Sylva Commissioner Ben Guiney during a town meeting held Thursday, Sept. 10. “I would like to a request that in the meantime until they figure out what’s going on with their plaque that they agree to immediately cover up the Confederate flag, stars and bars, and ‘Our Heroes of the Confederacy.’ I don’t care if it’s cardboard or whatever, but put something over there because that’s what they agreed to and they have taken no action up until this time.”

Sylva Commissioner David Nestler stated his support for that request, while Mayor Lynda Sossamon emphasized the need to respect the county and its process in this situation. 

“I would just like to say we need to have faith in the commissioners of Jackson County that they are going to do what they said and give them the time to do it correctly,” said Sossamon.

A public nuisance? 

The conversation was the result of an agenda item Nestler had put forward requesting that the town consider declaring the monument a public nuisance. He first brought the topic up during the board’s Aug. 27 meeting, stating that there have been assaults and threats occurring in the statue area and that it’s the county’s responsibility to ensure that its property doesn’t become a risk to public safety. The purpose of the public nuisance declaration, Nestler said, would be to get the issue “in the books,” so that if such acts continue to occur in the future, “then we have a way to keep our community safe by pursuing action for the forfeiture of that property.”

By the Sept. 10 meeting, however, Nestler had changed his mind. The law requires property owners to make a “good faith effort” to abate nuisances on their land, and the fencing and security personnel the county has put up around the area likely meet that standard, he said. 

“I think at this point it’s probably unnecessary to declare it a nuisance because they have taken steps to abate it,” said Nestler. “Now, I’d kind of like us to keep an eye on that. And if the communication of threats stop, and no more assaults occur then I think it’s been abated.”

However, said Nestler, if the issues continue the town might have to revisit the public nuisance declaration. 

Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton said his department has been called to only one incident in the statue area since the issue heated up. In that incident, which occurred on Aug. 5, a man called a woman an “ashtray” and flipped a lit cigarette butt toward her, hitting her in the head. The victim knew the perpetrator’s identity and so was able to go directly to the magistrate judge without police filing an assault charge, Hatton said. 

In addition, he said, he has received reports of “online social media language that individuals indicate that they are perceiving as threats,” but none of those incidents have met the legal requirement for prosecution, Hatton said. 

“Apart from protests/demonstrations where opposing sides were becoming agitated with each other, to my knowledge we have had no reports of assaults or communication of threats filed with our office,” said Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Major Shannon Queen. “However, this would be a misdemeanor charge likely and victims could seek their own charges from the magistrate without completing a report with our office.”

Conflicting viewpoints

In a 4-1 vote Aug. 4, county commissioners decided to remove the Confederate flag and the words “Our Heroes of the Confederacy” from the base of the statue, which depicts an unnamed Confederate solider and was erected in 1915 using donations from community members. The vote came in response to a resolution from the town asking the county to relocate the statue outside town limits, due to outcry from some community members who see the statue as glorifying the Confederacy and White supremacy. Commissioners denied the request, citing a state law that restricts the removal and relocation of public monuments, deciding to alter the statue instead. 

While the four commissioners who voted to keep the monument saw the decision to alter some of its more objectionable symbols as a compromise, opponents of the statue say they don’t see it that way. The racial justice group Reconcile Sylva has recently launched a social media campaign underscoring this point, #relocationisthecompromise. McMahan said that in a recent meeting with four Reconcile Sylva members he was surprised to hear that they oppose the alterations.

“They would prefer that we left it alone, which I think is interesting because the Town of Sylva passed a resolution banning the display of the Confederate flag, and that being the most prominent part of it, the part that is most conspicuous, you would think that would be something that would be favorable,” he said. 

“What I’ve heard from people is they asked the question, ‘Why do you want to denigrate your family member’s tombstone?’ which is what a lot of people have said it represents to them,” responded Commissioner Ron Mau, the only member of the board to vote against keeping the statue in place. 

Discussion in county chambers

While no alterations have been made yet, commissioners are not ignoring the issue. They discussed plans for the statue during a Sept. 8 work session. 

“We have multiple solutions that we can come back and show you aesthetically different solutions,” said County Manager Don Adams. “That is technically the easy part of this conversation.”

The harder part will be agreeing on the exact language to go on the plaques that will be used to cover the flag and phrase commissioners voted to remove. 

Commissioner Boyce Deitz said he’d be happy just to leave the whole thing blank. Chairman Brian McMahan, meanwhile, said he’d like to see some well thought-out verbiage laying out the history of the monument and of Jackson County’s involvement in the Civil War. The plaque should say that the Civil War was the first conflict since Jackson County’s formation in 1851, name the troops that came from the county as well as notable people or groups that served, and highlight the fact that there were people from Jackson County who served in the Union Army. The plaque should also talk about how the statue came to be erected in 1915 as well as the 1996 rededication, he said. 

“I would like somehow to add some statement of unity, emphasizing that now we’re one nation,” added Commissioner Gayle Woody. “I don’t know what that would look like and I’m not really the best person to take the wording, but I would like to explore that.”

McMahan said he would draft some proposed language to bring back to the group at a subsequent meeting. 

“Personally, I think this is a decision that we as a board need to make,” he said. “A lot of times we ask committees to draft things, but in my opinion, it might be easier for us just to do it.”

However, during the Sept. 10 town meeting, Sylva Commissioner Greg McPherson said that he hoped commissioners would reach beyond its membership for input. 

“Since we are talking so much about diversity in our community, I think this is the perfect opportunity for the county to reach out to people of different backgrounds to get some input about what that is going to say,” he said. 

The statue issue has been hugely controversial in Sylva and in Jackson County as a whole, sparking multiple protests and spurring extremely high turnout for public comment at multiple public meetings — during the Aug. 4 meeting when the county took its vote, the public comment portion of the agenda lasted for nearly two hours. 

Earlier in the summer, Woody had suggested forming a task force to craft recommendations for the statue area. She told the board that she recognized that they were “five white individuals” and could benefit from the guidance of a more racially diverse group of community members in making the decision. However, that plan was scrapped following outcry from members of Reconcile Sylva, who said that putting Black and brown people on such a task force would make them targets for threats and violence. 

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