Cindy Lee Talisman admits she didn’t think this through.
In July, following the petition of the local historical societyas well as the national outcry following the murders of nine African-Americans in South Carolina at the hands of a white supremacistthe Hillsborough Board of Commissioners reluctantly agreed to remove the words “Confederate memorial” from the town-owned museum on North Churton Street.
The museum was once a whites-only library dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1930s, part of a rich town history that, like that of many small towns in North Carolina, is rife with racial animus. The town’s decision prompted a rowdy but peaceful pro-Confederate flag rally on the Town Hall lawn in August, which Talisman attended. (A similarly heated debate is now taking place in Chapel Hill, where activists are calling for the removal of a statue on UNC’s campus honoring Confederate soldiers.)
Talisman, a self-styled “history buff” who grew up in Nova Scotia and has worked as a travel agent in Hillsborough for the last three decades, decided the night of the town board’s vote that she would run for one of its three open seats this fall.
“I make up my mind on the spot about everything,” she says.
On Tuesday’s ballot, Talisman will be one of two conservative candidatesthe other being Ashley DeSena, an operations coordinator for Art Pope’s Center for Higher Education Policywho are campaigning for the protection of Hillsborough’s Confederate legacy.
There are, of course, other issues at play. Housing prices are rising, and Hillsborough could see its population of about 6,300 double by 2040. There are many questions about Hillsborough’s future, but between the memorial and the Colonial Inn, a 176-year-old historic hotel that town leaders voted to seize through eminent domain two weeks ago, this year’s election seems destined to hinge on the past.
Board members say the Colonial Inn’s owner has allowed the historic inn, once a popular local restaurant, to crumble over the last decade into a weed-choked eyesore in the heart of downtown. Town leaders hope a public-private partnership will restore the dilapidated property.
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, who is running unopposed for re-election, says both issues have made this year’s election one of the town’s most heated in a decade. And that’s not a good thing.
“Single-issue races are always very difficult for officials and troublesome for good governance,” he says. “We got Prohibition at the beginning of the 20th century because it was a single-issue race.”
Talisman and DeSena want to save the memorial and leave the inn to its owner, former UNC soccer star Francis Henry. The competing blocincumbents Evelyn Lloyd and Brian Lowen, as well as former town Historic District Commission member Mark Bellwants to do just the opposite.
“I don’t think that building has more value than property rights,” says DeSena.
As a libertarian who prizes “economic freedom,” her first priority is to revise town regulations that she considers too burdensome for small-business owners.
But DeSena also criticizes board members for their actions on the memorial and the inn, suggesting both were based on emotion, not logic. “The library used to be a place where people’s rights were infringed upon,” she says. “It’s not that anymore. Let’s acknowledge that painful past, but not forget it.”
Talismanthough she did not grow up in the Southsays those offended by the flag need to learn their history.
“The Civil War was about so much more than slavery. Slavery just happens to be an offshoot that people have focused on,” she says. “And in my opinion, it’s nothing compared to the Holocaust.”
If Mark Bell had his way, neither issue would warrant much discussion. To him, the town’s growth is much more important.
“People are afraid that Hillsborough’s going to grow so fast that it’s going to undermine our small-town character,” Bell says. “We have to make sure that growth is rolled out strategically, smartly and in a measured fashion.”
Even so, Talisman believes the race will come down to the memorial. “You can’t change history,” she says. “The Germans haven’t put their horrific history behind closed doors.”
Actually, Germany bans the public display of all Nazi symbols.