The idea of erecting a North Carolina monument honoring African-American achievement has been talked about for 15 years, but it took the 2015 killing of nine people in a Charleston church to turn that talk into action.
On Tuesday (March 8), state officials will be at Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture for one in a series of public hearings to determine what shape the monument will take when erected on the state Capitol grounds in Raleigh.
“This is a very important time to do this, due to all the racial unrest in the country,” said Michelle Lanier, director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission.
“On the statehouse grounds in Alabama and South Carolina, there were (Confederate) symbols that needed to come down. We don’t have that in North Carolina, but we realized we had another issue: A void. There was a missing piece to the story being told, in monument form on the state Capitol grounds. It’s the story of the African-American people of North Carolina.”
The shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston took place June 17. Four months later, Gov. Pat McCrory announced the state Historical Commission voted unanimously to move forward with planning a memorial on the state Capitol grounds.
It’s not known yet when it will go up, how much it will cost, who will pay, or even whether it should be an African-American artist who creates it.
A site has been picked, however. It will go on the southeast corner of the site, a spot that has been empty for as long as historians remember.
The four public hearings are providing the public a rare opportunity on multiple counts. Someone at the Gantt Center Tuesday night could pitch an idea that will end up carved in stone for perpetuity.
Equally important is that there has been a moratorium in place over the past two decades that forbids construction of statues on the state Capitol grounds, which already holds 14 monuments.
The state has decided to make exceptions to the moratorium in only three cases: a monument to women, a monument to Native Americans and a monument to African-Americans. So far, only a monument to African-Americans has been proposed.
North Carolina’s won’t be the first such monument. South Carolina erected one in 2001, and Virginia has had a civil rights monument since 2008.
South Carolina’s monument is the more elaborate of the two, standing two stories high and spanning 25 feet. It cost just over $1 million (all private donations) and tells the story of African-Americans from their arrival to that state as slaves to the modern age.
Susan Kluttz, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, says the state is being intentional about not suggesting ideas for the monument. The plan, she says, is to get the public to think freely.
Once the cost is determined, she says a tentative plan is to get the state legislature to supply some money and hold a public fundraising campaign for the rest.
Brenda Tindal, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, says she will attend the hearing. She likes the idea of the monument including North Carolinians such as Ella Baker (1903-1986), who is often called the most influential woman of the civil rights movement, and U.S. Rep George Henry White (1852-1918), who was the last African-American to serve in Congress until 1973. He also introduced the first bill in Congress to make lynching a federal crime.
Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett also believes the civil rights movement should figure prominently in the monument. One idea, he says, is to create a lunch counter with statues of the four original Greensboro activists who occupied chairs reserved for whites in a 1960 protest. “And a couple of empty chairs for you to sit down, if you wish,” Hanchett added.
Patrick Graham, head of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, says a sculptural collage would help capture many such stories. Among the Carolinians he’d like to see: Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), who escaped slavery and became an reformer and author; and Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827-1901), the first African-American to serve in Congress.
People “all North Carolinians could appreciate and be proud of,” Graham said.