Disenfranchisement colored Confederate statue debate in city
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — As a little girl growing up in this segregated eastern port city, Bettie Parker’s parents told her, “When you see the Confederate flag on a car, run.”
Six decades later, Parker, this city’s first black female mayor, remembers the warning every time she passes the same flag carved into the 30-foot-tall monument stationed next to the county courthouse.
Following the racially-toned violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere two years ago, Parker has used her political position to try to remove the statue. In August 2017, the city council unanimously passed a resolution urging the Pasquotank County Commissioners to petition the state legislature for permission to remove the statue, as is required by state law.
But a month later, the majority-white Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 against the idea, and the effort died. Parker, 69, who was by then a county commissioner, was one of three to vote in favor of the petition.
Lloyd Griffin, a county commissioner who voted to not discuss removal, said the statue preserves the area’s history.
“There’s no justification. If we removed it, then we should remove all historical monuments,” said Griffin, 57. “Our history is not going to go away.”
Neither is opposition to leaving the monument by itself in such a prominent location.
“It’s not about race,” said Parker. “It’s about symbolism.”
In 2015, then-governor Pat McCrory signed the Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act, banning the removal of any object of remembrance from public property. The overriding number of monuments and memorials in North Carolina pay tribute to the legacy of the Confederacy, with a minute number memorializing and honoring the Union side, slaves and free blacks in the state of the same era, according to a compiled list of North Carolina state monuments.
Gaining a stronger voice in political life has been a long effort by African-American residents in Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County, where the city is located.
In 1984, the NAACP filed a lawsuit saying the county had violated the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act against discriminatory voting practices and that the U.S. Attorney General or District Court had failed to ensure that voter redistricting did not result in discrimination against minority voters. In addition to four county commissioners elected by district, three others on the seven-member board are elected at-large.
The three at-large county seats, it contended, “unnecessarily diluted black voting strength.”
The NAACP won the case and one majority-minority district was created to ensure black voters at least one candidate on the county board. In 1986, W.C. Witherspoon became the county’s first African-American commissioner. He was replaced by Perry in 2003.
Although 38 percent of the county’s voting age population self-identifies as African-American, that one seat equals only a 14 percent voice on the board.
Julie Stamper, coordinator for the county’s office of Geographical Information Systems, said “some of that (37.62 percent) is prison population and the university, people who can’t vote or don’t vote,” referring to the Pasquotank Correctional Institute located in the Northern Outside voting district, where inmates are counted in census data yet cannot vote, and to Elizabeth City State University, where students are counted but many do not vote in the local county elections.
New districts could be drawn as soon as new census data is released in 2020, county officials said.
Stamper also said minorities do not just vote for minorities and white voters don’t always vote for white candidates. In 2014, Bettie Parker became the first African-American elected to an at-large seat on the board, the third African-American commissioner in its history. Three years later, she was elected mayor and another African- American replaced her on the county commission.
The area’s history, rooted in racial division, has made the task of telling a fuller Civil War history difficult, said Leonard Lanier, collections assistant at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.
“There was a civil war within the Civil War in Pasquotank County,” said Lanier. Local activity during the Civil War was “definitely not the romantic, heroic struggle the Confederate nostalgia groups” glorify, he said, but what would be described today as guerrilla war.
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, local whites viewed it, as well as the federal occupation of eastern North Carolina, as an attack on the slave-based economic system, he explained.
Nevertheless, black and white Unionism continued in support of “the Federal cause as the cause of freedom,” Lanier said.
Jeff Stokely, 53, who helped remodel the county courthouse in the 1980s, said the statue honors the history of the Confederacy, not as a symbol of the slave society, but as a reminder of what the Confederate soldiers did to protect their country and interests.
Cecil Perry believes that the statue does not represent the full history of Elizabeth City, saying, “I have a heritage, too.”
Simply adding historical context around the statue could present this untold side of history, said Hilary Green, a former assistant history professor at Elizabeth City State University. As is, “the monument silences all other voices.”
Now in her first term as mayor, Parker said the community’s progress over time has shaped her perspective on the statue that adorns the flag she used to run from.
“Symbolically and historically, the Confederate monuments are negative reminders of what happened in the South in the past and should not be glorified on State property,” she said.
While the county commission majority stands in the way of the city council’s decision, Parker wants to make sure the monument debate doesn’t end.
“The monument discussion should be about both the race relations of the community and portraying the history behind the monument,” she said.
Dating back to the late 1860s, the African-American community celebrated the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved Americans, with annual celebrations on January 1.
During the celebrations in Pasquotank County, prominent black citizens read the proclamation and gave speeches. Parades were added in the 1870s.
Held at local churches in the early years, citizens later assembled for the annual event on the county courthouse grounds. This tradition lasted decades until May 1911, when the Confederate monument was unveiled at the same location.
“It is very suspicious that the area most closely associated with emancipation celebrations and African-American influence was obliterated by erecting this monument,” said Lanier. “It put in stone, literally, that this was a white man’s country.”
Another example of North Carolina’s disenfranchisement of African-American political power involved erasing Hugh Cale from the state’s history. Cale, an African-American born a free man in neighboring Perquimans County, won election to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1876 and was also a Pasquotank County Commissioner.
In 1891, he helped established the State Colored Normal School at Elizabeth City, now Elizabeth City State University, an historically black college.
During the 1890s, the Fusion Party, made up of black Republicans - who later became known as Democrats -and white Populists, dominated North Carolina politics and led to the election or appointment of about 1,000 African-Americans to government positions.
This progress came to an abrupt halt in 1898 with the Wilmington Race Riots that turned into a white-run coup d’etat, the only successful one in U.S. history. The coup plotters installed a government based on white rule to the exclusion of blacks.
During the same time period, Cale’s name was removed from a plaque dedicated to the five county commissioners in the Pasquotank County Courthouse.
In 1901, the state’s constitution was amended, which also diminished the black community’s growing political influence. Although changes did not explicitly proclaim the disenfranchisement of blacks, the implementation of literacy tests, the poll tax and a grandfather clause, which allowed only those whose descendants had voted prior to 1867 the right to vote, effectively lowered black turnout and significantly reduced the voice of African-Americans in politics, Lanier said.
Black Republican George Henry White was the last of four African-Americans elected to the U.S. Congress from North Carolina’s “black second” district, named for its majority black population in the late 1800s.
After the restrictive voting amendments in 1901, White did not seek a third term. He was replaced by a white Democrat, Claude Kitchin, whose spot went largely unchallenged for the next quarter-century. Kitchin eventually became the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.
There was not another African-American elected to Congress from the state until Eva Clayton in 1992. Clayton was the first African-American woman to represent North Carolina in the House. She was re-elected five times.
Clayton replaced Walter B. Jones Sr., a white member of Congress who died in office. His son, Walter B. Jones Jr., is the current U.S. representative for North Carolina’s 3rd congressional district, which includes Pasquotank County.
Meanwhile, Cale’s name has been added back to the plaque, and the commissioners’ board room in the courthouse bears his name in recognition of his public service.