Memory and Monuments in Tarboro
A national reevaluation of Confederate monuments met small-town politics. As the statue came down, the town of 11,000 was left to ask, “What’s next?” // Photos by Hanna Wondmagegn
It was late last October when Deborah Jordan watched the weathered copper box being cut open. “When they unearthed it,” she said, “I thought, ‘Just maybe there’s something in there.’”
The container was a time capsule, excavated from a concrete vault beneath the town of Tarboro’s recently removed Edgecombe County Confederate Monument.
During the nationwide protests this summer that followed the May murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Tarboro joined cities and towns across the state of North Carolina—Greenville, Kinston, Rocky Mount, Raleigh, and many more—in removing Confederate symbols and statues from public display.
Jordan, a member of the Tarboro Town Council, was among the narrow 5-3 majority who voted for removal. The five votes that carried the motion were made by councilmembers like Jordan, who sought an anti-racist reckoning, and those fearful of the civil unrest they saw unfolding in other municipalities. The bronze, rifle-toting soldier and the granite column on which he had loomed for more than a century were removed in late August.
The time capsule—a common feature of turn-of-the-century monuments—was found beneath a slab in the statue’s cornerstone. The “something in there” that Jordan was hoping for was a remnant, a mere trace of history.
As a child, Jordan spent time with her great-grandmother, Lizzie Harris. Born in Edgecombe County in the 1880s, Harris’ parents had been enslaved. She grew up living on land and bearing a maiden name—Staton—that belonged to their former enslavers. “She told me stories because she kept me while my mother worked,” said Jordan. “I thought maybe I would hear the names my grandmother mentioned.”
Inside the box were mementos of the Confederacy: carte-de-visite photographs of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, crumpled Confederate banknotes, a verdigris-speckled button from a staff officer’s coat donated by his widow, and a small, faded flag of stars and bars on a broken stick.
There were many names in the box. Damp pages contained biographies of Confederate officers, the rolls of a local veterans’ organization and a masonic lodge, and an autographed list of the members of the William Dorsey Pender chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) who had gifted the statue.
But none of those names, it seems, belonged to African Americans, who at the height of the U.S. Civil War accounted for more than 10,000 enslaved individuals—and some 60 percent of Edgecombe County’s population.
“It was a confirmation,” Jordan said. When none of the names her great-grandmother had mentioned surfaced, “It didn’t feel good. I was very disappointed.”
For her, the contents of the time capsule were a corroboration that the history contained in and beneath that monument was about forgetting, not remembrance. It was this kind of historical erasure that Jordan wanted removed from the large tract of land at the heart of her town.
Even months later when we spoke on the phone, Jordan was still thinking about the Black Americans who had been obscured in the town’s history. She wondered about the people who had assembled the time capsule and set the monument upon its pedestal: “What were their mindsets?”
On October 29, 1904, the day the monument was unveiled, some two thousand people gathered beneath a canopy of oak and magnolia trees on the Tarboro Town Commons as a band played “Dixie.” Nearly 40 years had passed since Lee had surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, but a rebel yell still rose from more than a hundred aging veterans in the crowd.
The day’s dedication ceremony was organized and underwritten by the UDC, but only men ascended to the speaking platform. Local dignitaries welcomed the crowds, offered benedictions, and praised “the band of devoted women” who had delivered the likeness of a Confederate private from the foundry in Chicago where it was cast.
Julian Carr—the white supremacist and industrialist whose philanthropic legacy is now being reassessed because of his racist worldview and ties to the Ku Klux Klan—was the keynote speaker.
“Since the time of the Republic of Greece, there has been no such measure of liberty as existed in the South,” Carr told the crowd in a sweeping speech that wed a false narrative of Greco-Roman racial homogeneity to the Confederacy’s pathetically rendered Lost Cause. “Every man who owned a slave was bred to authority; those who owned none got the spirit of personal independence from those that did.” In Carr’s account, freedom for white men relied upon enslavement. The Old South, he announced, would be “the guiding sire of the New South.”
Far from the inclusive and aspirational “New South” heralded by progressives from President Jimmy Carter to DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, Carr’s vision relied upon systematic segregation. His reference to antebellum white terror was steeped in recent Jim Crow-era violence and intimidation—voter suppression, the lynching campaign sweeping the South, and the nearby Wilmington Massacre of just a few years earlier.
The principal architect of the brutal massacre, Charles B. Aycock, had since become North Carolina’s governor. He sat in the crowd, nodding approvingly, as Carr spoke.
The presence of Carr and Aycock at the dedication signaled a clapback.
Tarboro had been a lodestar of Black political power in the 1800s. After the 1870 census grossly underestimated the Black population of North Carolina’s coastal plain, Democrats inadvertently redistricted a bastion of Republicanism in the Second Congressional District.
Edgecombe County helped elect Black and white Republicans at every level of government, including the U.S. Congress. Seven men represented the Second Congressional in the last three decades of the 19th-century; four of them were Black.
The most famous of these was Tarboro’s own George Henry White, who had cut his teeth in the North Carolina General Assembly, and later served as the nation’s only Black district attorney near New Bern. In 1900, as the last Black congressman of the waning Reconstruction era, White introduced a bill to make lynching a federal crime; it was never put to a vote. The same year, the state legislature approved an amendment for widespread voting disenfranchisement that targeted Black men.
Subsequently, White did not seek another congressional term. Instead, he moved his family north in 1901 and told an interviewer, “I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man, and be treated as a man.” The state would not send another Black member to the U.S. Congress until 1992.
It was during this pendulum swing from the era of Republican promise to the Democratic stranglehold of the “Solid South” that the vast majority of America’s Confederate monuments were erected. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the installation of some 400 monuments nationwide between 1900 and 1915. Many, like Tarboro’s statue, were donated by local chapters of the UDC.
Professors Ewa Silver and Karin Zipf of Eastern Carolina University contracted with the town to open and make recommendations on the preservation of the time capsule. “The special appearances of Governor Charles Brantley Aycock and Julian S. Carr,” they wrote in their official report, “strongly signify the white supremacist intentions behind the monument’s installation.”
But not everyone in the town of nearly 11,000 shares this perspective.
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“There’s a little bit more emotion felt in a small town,” said Tarboro’s mayor, Joe Pitt, when I asked him what made the removal of the Edgecombe County Confederate Monument different from monument removals in big cities like Richmond, New Orleans, and Charlotte. “You feel much closer to the people.”
It’s easy to see what he means. Tarboro is a place where everybody seems to know everybody. People walking through town greet each other by name.
On my first visit to Main Street—which crosses the Tar River into Princeville and boasts a modest bustle, even in the midst of a pandemic—a man sitting on the steps of the post office hollered at me. “Now you’re not from Tarboro,” he said, not in an unfriendly manner. Even wearing a mask, I was made.
Residents I spoke to felt—as Pitt suggested—emotional about the statue removal.
“As you can probably guess, I’m not happy,” Monika Fleming, program coordinator of Historic Preservation at Edgecombe County Community College, told me. She had advocated for more signage, perhaps additional monuments to celebrate the contributions of Black troops who had served in the Civil War—but opposed the removal.
When I asked her about the clear insinuations of white supremacy at the monument’s dedication, she countered, “It was a celebration.” For Edgecombe’s families, she explained—many of them poor and now with expendable income for the first time since the war—the monument was a memorial for husbands and sons whose bodies had not been returned to them. Fleming also cited the coalition politics of the previous decades as evidence of goodwill between white and Black residents of Tarboro. “There were children there, and fire trucks paraded down the street,” she said. “If there was any animosity, the newspapers didn’t report it.”
“It wasn’t a monument to the Civil War,” agreed John Jenkins, a council member who voted against the monument removal. “It was in memory of those who perished. It didn’t say anything, and it didn’t do anything, and it did not cause a bit of problem. What’s happening to America is very sad.”
“I think a lot of people from the community want to believe this more romanticized past,” Zipf said of reactions such as these. “Many grew up in the very structured cultural environment that is exactly what the UDC wanted them to grow up in.”
Alisha J. Hines, assistant professor of history and my colleague at Wake Forest University, was unequivocal: “The suggestion that [these monuments] are merely markers of benign or neutral historical content, or that they represent much other than an era of counterrevolutionary white terror, is tragically and dangerously misinformed.”
Tate Mayo, the Town Council’s youngest member, joined Jenkins, its eldest member, in opposition to removing the statue. Mayo fielded over 100 phone calls on the issue, he said, the vast majority of them from constituents who wanted the monument kept where it was. In the two public hearings he organized under those age-old oak and magnolia trees, discussions became heated.
Mayo, a libertarian, voiced frustration that the statue has elicited so much public engagement when what he feels to be more pressing matters remain neglected. He particularly cited urgency for rural internet, housing, and transportation. In Tarboro, roughly 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and 14 percent do not have any form of transportation. It’s not unusual, he told me, to see someone cruising down the road on a lawnmower. The monument removal eclipsed these pressing concerns.
“People were lined up out the door,” Mayo said of the Town Council’s public hearing on the monument removal. “At the next meeting, there were only two people, and one of them was my dad.”
Jenkins and Mayo—both of whom are white—expressed that they felt the issue was divisive, not unifying, for the community. “We’ve lived peacefully through everything,” said Jenkins.
This is a contested opinion. “You’ll have people tell you things weren’t that bad in Tarboro,” resident Winfield Cruz told me. “That’s a lie.”
Born in Tarboro in 1947, Cruz left for college, a career with the federal government, and a tour in Vietnam. When he returned in the 1980s, he observed, “It was still the same.”
Cruz recalled the days when Panola Street was the unofficial line between Black and white Tarboro, when Black residents couldn’t get loans from Tarboro banks, and when the high school regularly elected a Black homecoming queen as well as a white one. Cruz worked in the school system, and when I asked him when this last practice ended, he told me it had continued into the early 2000s.
“We are trying to move forward in this town with unity,” said Jordan, who is now in her second term on the Town Council. “I felt it was time to remove that negativity.” Even so, she said, she was surprised when the motion to remove the monument was carried.
Mayor Pitt initially wanted to leave the statue where it was, but changed his mind after listening to members of the Black community. After that, he said, “I was seeing it from different eyes.”
Another councilmember, who requested anonymity, told me that they had voted in favor of removal because “I felt [it] was best for the safety of the monument.”
The mayor was surprised to hear that council and community members had represented the removal as contentious. From his viewpoint, the motion passed “very quickly and very easily.”
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If the decision to remove the monument had been swift, questions about what to do with the deposed statue dragged on through the summer and into the fall.
At an October council meeting, several motions were deadlocked. Would there be a deadline for the statue’s disposition? Did it matter if it was received by an individual or an organization? If it was housed privately, could the statue still be designated for public access? Should it remain in Edgecombe County?
Initial suggestions that the Edgecombe County Veterans’ Military Museum might assume custody of the monument were dashed quickly. Herbert Whitehurst, an army veteran and president of the museum, said that in addition to not having enough room for the large figure in the squat brick building located just off Tarboro’s main drag, the museum’s board felt the statue was just “too controversial.”
In November, the Town Council voted to receive proposals for the relocation of the monument. The first came from the owner of Coolmore Plantation, a west Tarboro residence designated a Historic Landmark in the 1970s; the proposal was ultimately withdrawn because of a conditional-use clause on the property.
The second proposal came from a nonprofit called Tarboro Revitalization Inc., which owns the Colonial Theater—a currently unoccupied early-twentieth-century cinema on Main Street. The group did not disclose an intended location for the statue.
The final proposal came from the Fort Branch Historical Society, which focuses on the preservation of a privately owned Civil War-era earthen fortress located on the Roanoke River in neighboring Martin County. Though currently closed due to COVID-19, the site hosts tours, events, and an annual battle reenactment. The Fort Branch proposal was, by far, the most thorough.
According to the document, Fort Branch was the closest military installation to Tarboro during the Civil War. The society’s president, Jimmy Braswell, mapped out significant connections between the garrison and Edgecombe County, including a list of Edgecombe County veterans who had served at the fort. “The men and boys that show up on this list and the others that the monument honors were not the ‘Monsters’ that the media depict them to be today,” he wrote. “They were simple farmers, shop keeps [sic], and such. They were everyday fathers, husbands, and sons that had the courage to take up arms to defend their families, friends, property, and communities from destruction from an invading enemy. Some of the ones on this list found themselves in the position to directly defend their homes. ... Today, these men and boys are our Grand Fathers and Great Uncles. Those men and boys are us.”
In January, the Tarboro Town Council moved to transfer the Edgecombe County Confederate Monument to Fort Branch. The decision underwent a period of public notice, and a resolution is now pending approval by the Council.
When I asked Deborah Jordan if the monument’s removal had made a difference in the town of Tarboro, she paused, sighed, and said, “We’ve still got a ways to go.”