Black residents in North Carolina county sue to remove racist statue

<span>The statue outside the Tyrrell county courthouse in Columbia, North Carolina, in an undated photo.</span><span>Photograph: Ian Mance/Emancipate NC</span>
The statue outside the Tyrrell county courthouse in Columbia, North Carolina, in an undated photo.Photograph: Ian Mance/Emancipate NC

A group of Black residents in a North Carolina county have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have a prominent Confederate-era statue relocated from outside the county courthouse.

The statue, located outside the Tyrrell county courthouse in Columbia, North Carolina, features a bust of a Confederate soldier and an inscription reading:“In appreciation of our faithful slaves.”

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The Concerned Citizens of Tyrrell County (CCTC), a civic organization composed of the county’s older Black residents, is suing the county’s board of commissioners in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday.

The CCTC allege in the lawsuit that the statue is a violation of the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause, which protects against “racially discriminatory government speech”.

Moreover, the ancestors of several CCTC members lived in Tyrrell county before and during the civil war and had potentially been enslaved, underlining the importance for many of removing it.

“Litigation was our last resort,” said Sherryreed Robinson, CCTC’s treasurer, in a press release. “We have peacefully voiced our objections for years. This monument says our ancestors preferred slavery to freedom. That’s a false and hurtful message for the government to communicate.”

The statue was first unveiled in 1902 at an event with at least 3,000 people in attendance, as noted in the suit. It was a gift from the Tyrrell Monument Association, a group created by William Fessenden Beasley, a former Confederate soldier whose family owned enslaved people.

Attorney Jaelyn Miller of Emancipate NC, an organization working against structural racism, said the monument is particularly offensive even compared to other Confederate statues.

“I think this is the most egregious statue I’ve ever seen,” Miller said on Friday.

“Most Confederate monuments have ‘In appreciation of our Confederate soldiers’ or some veteran monument language. This has explicitly racist language referencing slavery [and] implying that the ancestors of our clients preferred slavery to freedom,” she added.

Since the 1990s, the CCTC has advocated for the statue’s removal. According to the lawsuit, it is the only courthouse monument in the US to feature a “racially discriminatory message”.

In recent years, cities across the US have removed Confederate statues deemed racist, and the push reignited the CCTC’s efforts for the statue’s relocation.

But officials in Tyrrell county have not acted to remove the epitaph.

Previous attempts to get the statue relocated – including peaceful protests, letters to local newspapers and billboards – have been met with indifference or “acts of intimidation”, the lawsuit states.

Moreover, several CCTC members say they have been unfairly persecuted while protesting the statue or physically threatened by defenders of the monument.

In one incident, a member of CCTC alleged that they were “menaced with a truck by a man who supports maintaining the faithful slaves monument”.

“Our clients are very elderly, in their 70s, 80s and 90s,” Miller said. “They’re not necessarily folks that can physically defend themselves from physical threats, because of their age.”

The Tyrrell county’s board of commissioners did not respond to a request for comment on the suit or on whether it plans to remove the statue.

Miller said she remains hopeful that the court will order the statue’s removal, especially as it is not protected by law.

In 2022, North Carolina’s supreme court ruled that previous protections of monuments only apply to those owned by the state, not individual counties.

“For us, given the history and the explicit message, it seems like a clearcut violation of the equal protection clause,” she said.

“We really just don’t know how the courts are going to see it. But we do have hope that they’ll see it our way,” she added.